Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 23, August 2002



Asbjørn Grønstad

The Appropriational Fallacy

Grand Theories and the Neglect of Film Form




'Film is made first of all out of images and sounds; ideas intervene (perhaps) later'. (Noel Burch) [1]


'All Theories as Toys'. (T. E. Hulme) [2]


If the title of this article resounds with the polemical palavering of literary theory in the 1940s, I have to submit that the allusion is not entirely accidental. It is not my intention here, however, to resuscitate the arguments of W. K. Wimsatt Jr and Monroe C. Beardsley, but rather to evoke a sense of parallelism between their issues and those at stake here. A crucial objective which informed Wimsatt's and Beardsley's project was to buttress the significance and irreducibility of the literary text in the face of monopolistic authorial and receptional meaning-making. [3] The scholarly environment that was American New Criticism tended to consider intentionalism and emotionalism as threats to the epistemological prominence and integrity of the text, which was all too readily lost in a plenitude of contexts whose relevance for the literary work was not always impressively transparent. Similarly, within the domain of film studies, it has perhaps become increasingly unclear whether the real object of study is the film text itself, or rather a concatenation of different disciplinary discourses hailing from departments of psychology, sociology, and biology (to name a few). The colonization of cinema studies is not a novel development; as a process its apogee was in the 1970s.


Two different but nevertheless related manifestations of contemporary scholarship -- neoformalism/historical poetics and cognitivism -- have progressively challenged the hegemony of 1970s 'Grand Theory'. Unfortunately, the latter 'movement', though presenting theories far more convincing than those of psychoanalytical/semiotic origins, tends to relegate the film itself to the same shadowy margins wherein it was abandoned under the former theoretical regime. Although insights into the cognitive-emotional processing of audiovisual fictions are indispensable to the field of cinema studies, there is a certain limit to how much negligence our primary object of study can be subjected to before the legitimacy of the discipline is compromised. It is my objective to briefly survey the current relationship between old and new Grand Theories on the one hand, and text-centered approaches on the other.


Throughout the last decade, film studies as a heterogeneous discipline has been in a process of immense transformation. As noted above, the dominance of psychosemiotic theories -- almost completely imperious in the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s -- has been overthrown by a new set of approaches, most notable of which are historical studies, cognitive film theory, and postcolonialism. In varying degrees each of these research areas is also reception-oriented in some way. This current multiplicity of approaches has led certain scholars to proclaim the demise of what has commonly been referred to as 'Grand Theory', and David Bordwell and Noel Carroll's _Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies_ (1996) provides a symptomatic manifestation of this changing climate. [4] The charges Bordwell and Carroll hurl at the older paradigm are too numerous to recount here, suffice it to say that what they propose in the place of 'Grand Theory' is a problem-driven research program known as middle-level theory. In short, this approach is one which focuses on smaller scale, concrete queries, which refrains from attempting to explain 'everything', and which generally proceeds inductively.


In a paper delivered at a 1999 conference, [5] Torben Grodal launched a critique of Bordwell's seemingly categorical dismissal of grand theory. Grodal complains that,


'the problem with Bordwell's argument is that he confuses a critique of bad theories and bad applications of deductive reasoning and unconvincing exemplifications, with a critique of a theory-driven procedure as such. From my point of view grand theories are necessary, not only in themselves, but also as guidelines for middle-level research.' [6]


With this statement Grodal also proffers his own stance on the subject: the presence of grand theory in film studies is not only acceptable but even necessary, given only that it is -- in keeping with his terminology -- a 'good' grand theory. He then advances toward the following conclusion:


'What makes some theories 'grand theories' is that they have a series of implications for research on a middle-level. That is the beauty of grand theories, they provide deep insights to a series of problems on many different levels. But the beauty is of course also the possible danger: A wrong grand theory provides a massive series of false insights in a series of levels and fields. The antidote for this danger is however not to shun grand theories, but to replace bad grand theories with better ones.' [7]


It is my contention that the implications of a cognitivist perspective (of which Grodal is but one proponent) -- in their advocacy of an evolutionary epistemology as the new grand theory -- are characteristic of the principal direction in cinema research during the last three decades: the privileging of the spectator-apparatus relation as the focal point of analysis, and the concomitant and increasing negligence of the film text itself. Whether the methodological framework is psychoanalytic/semiotic/Marxist or cognitive, post-classical film theory has been fervently preoccupied with defining functions relating either to the cinematic machinery, or institution, or to the psychology of the viewer. In the 1970s scholars such as Christian Metz, Colin McCabe, Laura Mulvey, Jean-Louis Baudry, Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean-Pierre Oudart and many others appropriated the work of Lacan, Althusser, Benveniste, Barthes, and Foucault to weld a highly idiosyncratic brand of critical film theory. Central to most of the various manifestations of this movement was the notion of subject positioning. According to this argument, classical mainstream cinema represented an oppressive force which pacified the spectator in a number of ways: being the product of a bourgeois, capitalist system, all of popular cinema per definition inculcated in the spectator a certain (false) ideology (the Althusserian version); Hollywood films had the capacity inevitably to transform any audience into a group of male voyeurs (the Lacanian version); and dominant cinema tended unscrupulously to mask its greatly opinionated discourse as 'natural' (the semiotic version, i.e. Metz's and Gerard Genette's and Raymond Bellour's renditions of Benveniste's enunciation theory). [8] Although some publications in this tradition, such as Raymond Bellour's 'The Obvious and the Code' and Stephen Heath's 'Narrative Space', [9] attended closely to the text through detailed frame analyses, even this work paid lip-service to film aesthetics since the investigation of textual form was highly compromised by the ready-made grand narratives that informed the analyses. The essentializing, agenda-driven approach to film research propagated by the SLAB (from Saussure, Lacan, Althusser and Barthes) concoction represents, as Bordwell and Carroll note in _Post-Theory_, a foundationalist system which conflates theory and interpretation, shies away from deductive and inductive reasoning, and is biased against formalist methods. [10] Specifically, Bordwell and Carroll object to grand theory's claims that an understanding of how viewers interact with films requires a theory of the subject, that spectatorial response presupposes identification, and that verbal language represents an adequate analogue for film. [11]


In a certain sense Bordwell and Carroll merely rehearse an old lamentation in their 1996 anthology. The first sign of a reaction to the Lacanian-Althusserian school of film studies was launched more than a decade before with the publication of Bordwell's own _Narration in the Fiction Film_ (1985). This work may be seen as the first instance of a clearly formulated cognitive approach within film studies. In the chapter 'The Viewer's Activity', Bordwell submits an outline of his reception theory which declares that 'the spectator's comprehension of the story is the principal aim of narration'. [12] Bordwell's theory is constructivist and relies fundamentally on notions such as hypothesis and inference-making, mental schemata, and bottom-up and top-down processes of active perception and comprehension of textual data. Perhaps because Bordwell is also vigorously engaged with establishing a neoformalist and a historicist framework for his rethinking of filmic narration, the cognitive component is not yet as gargantuan as it is to become later in the work of other film scholars. _Narration in the Fiction Film_, albeit, exhibits a consistent constructivist aspect which arguably provided film scholarship with fresh ideas that eventually were to transform the discipline. [13]


Although I certainly do not dispute the accomplishment of the contributions referred to above, it has occurred to me that amid the burgeoning growth of cognitive film studies -- as well as its relentless polemic with the psychosemiotic paradigm -- the significance of the textual artifact has been somewhat under-appreciated. Evidently, much of the work of Bordwell and Kristin Thompson -- which constitutes a trend in itself -- is an exception: publications such as Bordwell's _Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema_ (1988), _The Cinema of Eisenstein_ (1993), and _On the History of Film Style_ (1997), as well as Thompson's _Breaking the Glass Armour: Neoformalist Film Analysis_ (1988), are all works invaluable to film studies. However, generally speaking, the interest in poetics does not appear to be as influential or far-reaching as the interest in hermeneutics. [14]


What I find to be a lack of adequate sensitivity to the poetics of cinema involves two different levels. One is the position of aesthetic inquiries vis-a-vis biological, historical, and psychological (psychoanalytic) ones. The other, which is perhaps the more serious, is the relative neglect of poetic concerns *within* the various manifestations of reception theory. Despite the professed commitment, pronounced or implicit, to a dialectical approach -- one that defines the filmic experience itself as a product of the confluence of text and viewer -- many cognitive scholars seem to pay scarce attention to the textual part of the equation. A work such as Joseph D. Anderson's _The Reality of Illusion_ (1996) serves as an illustration of the situation. In order to overcome the perceived shortcomings of 1970s Grand Theory, Anderson champions a biologically situated metatheory which he calls *ecological*. 'To ask how we process continuity and character and narrative in motion pictures,' Anderson points out, 'is to ask how the forces of evolution equipped us to know where we are in space and time, to make rapid judgments of character, and to narratize the events of our existence.' [15] Both Grodal and Anderson assume that a 'culturalist' procedure is patently inapt in explaining the mechanics of film viewing, and they advance instead a methodology derived from Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, sociobiology, cognitive science, and neuroscience. A cognitive-ecological approach holds that concepts such as vision, narrative, and character can be more easily explained with reference to biology than to culture. Rather than relying on culturalist terms such as voyeurism or scopophila when describing visual processes, an ecological theory would stress the universality and functionality of vision as basic parameters for the viewer's transactions with moving images.


Whereas I do not object to the correctness of ecological approaches, my question is nevertheless: in what ways does an examination of the human visual system -- no matter how accurate -- promote our knowledge of films and the various institutions of cinema? Secondly, as regards emotion, ecological theory maintains that evolutionary psychology is better equipped than Grand Theory to expose and explain the nature of emotions which are universal. The ecologist would claim that Grand Theory provides an inadequate theory of emotion because it reduces emotion to a matter of desire and its suppression. Informing this argument is the conviction that film fiction typically involves a wider range of emotional categories than Grand Theory allows. Assuredly this is beyond any dispute. Notwithstanding, although the study of emotion in relation to film is a most commendable and necessary avenue of research (and, I might add, one which hitherto also has been somewhat overlooked), one needs to investigate the myriad ways in which different emotions are produced and manifested textually, rather than simply point out the presence of general universal emotions in the motivations and actions of film protagonists. That feelings such as care, aggression, altruism, love, hate, envy, fear and numerous others have a direct impact on narrative relations and effects within a given film is not a very specific observation. Most artistic expressions -- cinematic or other -- are precisely about these emotions, and it is therefore difficult to see how an awareness of this fact contributes to shedding new light on the aesthetic makeup of an individual film text. Rather than being content with identifying universals, one ought rather to explore how the text causes these universals to come into existence, how it might transform them and how it ultimately deals with them. In his discussion of concrete films, Anderson's analysis does not seem to depart from a general thematic level. With reference to _Citizen Kane_ (1941), for instance, Anderson accentuates the importance of our penchant for character recognition and attribution to solidify his assertion that 'problems of character recognition and attribution are universal . . . [our] capacities to cope with these problems were developed through evolution, and the manifestations of those capacities are, as we might expect, similar from culture to culture'. [16] Such a description might be accurate, but if it were not for the explicit mention that the text in question is in fact a motion picture, one would not know if Anderson was referring to a novel, a play, a poem, or a ballet. A general problem with exclusively thematic criticism is that it too often tends to *appropriate* the text as an instrument with which preformed arguments and interpretations may be justified.


The kind of interpretation 'ecologists' espouse is reminiscent of what Bordwell and Thompson call *symptomatic* meaning. 'The more abstract and general our attributions of meaning,' they write in _Film Art_ (1993), 'the more we risk loosening our grasp on the film's specific formal system. As analysts, we must balance our concern for that concrete system with our urge to assign it wider significance.' [17] In his _The Possibility of Criticism_, Beardsley proposes a new label for the type of appropriated, symptomatic interpretations Bordwell and Thompson refer to; he prefers to dub them 'superimpositions'. [18] Beardsley thus passes a judgment on the appropriational urge that is even harsher than that of the Madisonians: 'the moment the critic begins to use the work as an occasion for promoting his own ideas,' Beardsley writes, 'he has abandoned the task of interpretation'. [19] Beardsley's overall thesis is perhaps best summarized by himself when he concludes that 'we are not likely to get the other judgments of a poem right unless we can first make a sound *literary* judgment of it'. [20]


Even if we grant that evolutionary grand theory is one concerned more with identifying the convergent aspects of film fiction rather than with tracing its divergent forms, the biological framework still implies such a level of generality that one may risk losing sight of the film altogether. The theory's failure to differentiate between the stylistic, formal, and narrative techniques which the individual text materializes thus represents a serious obstacle to the accretion of our knowledge of the specificity of the filmic medium. More than fifty years ago, Wimsatt and Beardsley lambasted reception-oriented theories for a similar lack of precision: 'The purely affective report', they suggested, 'is either too physiological or it is too vague.' [21] The universality of bio-psychological functions such as vision and curiosity, just to name two discussed by evolutionary-oriented theory, and of formal features such as narrativity and spatial systems of representation, may account for some broad parameters essential to an understanding of the viewer-text relationship. However, the new grand theory seems incapable of generating film-related pronouncements. As a matter of fact, evolutionary evidence, such as the functional motivation behind the development of human vision (finding food, avoiding enemies, spotting possible mates) does not have much to do with the discipline of film studies at all. Again I emphasize that the problem is not so much related to the degree of factuality as to the degree of relevance. Nor is there anything about the inclusion of biological research into the film libraries which is worthy of critique. On the contrary, Grodal's _Moving Pictures_ and Anderson's _The Reality of Illusion_ are among the most important publications in contemporary film theory. Serious problems may arise, however, if, as one has reasons to suspect, a whole body of evolutionary-oriented film research is emerging as the new grand theory par excellence.


At the time of the publication of _Narration in the Fiction Film_ there was certainly a felt need for inquiries which acknowledged the active, participatory role performed by the viewer in the creation of film meaning. Just as processes of reading and reception were highlighted within literary studies through the work of Jauss, Iser, Fish and others in the 1970s and early 1980s, so the activity of viewing audiovisual fiction has been duly scrutinized in a number of works following in the wake of Bordwell's book (and significantly those mentioned above). Nevertheless, much of the cognitive film theory of the contemporary stage, I argue, pursues the biological hermeneutic as if all of film fiction was made up of generalized, canonical narrative scenarios, and, in effect, as if a poetics of cinema were non-existent. Textual meaning is constructed by the perceiving subject, as cognitive reception studies rightfully maintain, but it is not something constructed out of thin air. An aesthetic source must be provided in order for perception to take place to begin with. Furthermore, the importance of having a grand theory to accompany one's research also appears most questionable. In the conclusion to his paper, Grodal recognizes the need for middle-level research but underscores at the same time the absolute necessity of developing a new Grand Theory along the lines suggested by evolutionary biology. [22] Essentially, what Grodal proposes is to replace one monolithic system with a new one, but the argument does not really address the issue of what exactly the advantages of grand theory over middle-level research consist of. In other words, even as Grodal convincingly makes a case for cognitive film theory as being superior to psychosemiotic models, his demonstration of the strengths of grand theory vis-à-vis 'smaller' theories appears much less persuasive.


If the middle-level approach is only useful insofar as it may be subsumed by grand theory, the situation for film studies may not become much different from how it was in the 1970s. A change of prefix may be all, as an extreme culturalism is supplanted by an extreme biologism. The reliance on a master framework (Freudian or Darwinian) when explaining all kinds of film phenomena is a dubious starting point. Not so much because middle-level research is in any way incompatible with the generation of broader hypotheses (the latter often contributes a larger perspective mandatory for the methodical legitimacy of the individual project) -- the real problem, as I see it, begins when the *same* theoretical framework is attached repeatedly and indiscriminately to any middle-level research problem. To a great extent this was unfortunately what happened to film theorizing in the days of the old grand theory. Slogans such as 'it is the place of the look that defines cinema', [23] and 'film functions in many ways like a mirror', [24] epitomize this proclivity for formulating totalizing judgments that sapped much of the creative vitality and scientific rigidity out of film studies during the 1970s. When the premises for film analyses wax as foundationalistic as those of SLAB theory, the epistemological gain of a given examination diminishes because, in practice, conclusions have already been provided in advance. And the fact that these premises tend to be based on erroneous assumptions does not make the SLAB version of grand theory any more reassuring.


In certain respects one could claim that the new grand theory of evolutionary biology falls victim to some of the same problems for which the SLAB approach has been criticized. In particular its Neo-Darwinian postulations, such as for instance the functionalist accounts of the faculties of vision and emotion, constitute a programmatic thesis similar to those of Mulvey and Willemen above. The crucial difference, of course, is that the cognitivist program on the whole provides a considerably more plausible theory than the Freudian one, but, as mentioned previously, this is a plausibility or, if you will, factuality which should not be absorbed without some sobering qualifications. A statement typical of evolutionary film thought -- such as Grodal's 'the holistic cognitive coordination of the total organism enhances survival by mapping and acting on objects in space' [25] -- is presumably correct, but that does not in itself vouch for its pertinence to film theory. Moreover, when discussing narrativity and cinema, Grodal insists that the narrative structure of classical Hollywood cinema is merely a transformation of older storytelling strategies embedded in various forms of verbal narratives. [26] My reservation here is twofold. First, Grodal's assessment of narrative structure is somewhat oversimplified. On a certain level of generality, commonalities might be detected anywhere. Second, his thesis is filmically reductive since he only takes into account the formal elements shared by all media which produce classical narratives. Since Grodal's theory concerns trans-medial narrative structures that are biologically embedded, it is difficult to see why the claim should have any more to do with films than with any other narrative expression. The argument is singularly preoccupied with abstract cognitive systems related to narrativity, and does not consider narrative in its textual embodiment. Likewise, Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith seem to zero in on large-scale film-emotional structures that are too comprehensive to be able to distinguish fruitfully between the aesthetic specificity of one film in comparison with another. They write that cognitive scholars 'tend to examine phenomena in quite precise detail . . . Instead of dealing with broad emotional concepts such as pleasure . . . [they] tend to discuss particular kinds of emotion cueing . . . such as sentimentality or comedy'. [27] It is true that pleasure, being common to both sentimentality and comedy, represents a more general notion than the two other concepts. Nonetheless, it amounts to no exaggeration to point out that sentimentality and comedy are still very broad categories with no particular epistemological consequence for the individual film text.


How does one account for the emergence of grand cultural theory and grand biological theory historically? Although the multiple variables are far too complexly intertwined to recapture here, there seems to be a marked difference between classical and modern film theories with regard to their ways of approaching the object of study. Whereas for the theorists of the classical period the understanding of cinema was both the means and the end of film scholarship, for the modern theorists cinema has, as noted above, represented a vehicle for other academic concerns. Generally speaking, this development may be charted as one proceeding from an aesthetic to a doctrinaire perspective on film. The main theorists of the past -- Rudolf Arnheim, Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Dziga Vertov, V. I. Pudovkin, Bela Balazs, Andre Bazin, and Jean Mitry -- encompassed a tradition whose scholarly emphasis was on ontological and formal aspects of cinema. V. F. Perkins's _Film as Film_ (1972) and Noel Burch's _Theory of Film Practice_ (1969) are perhaps the last significant contributions within the classical tradition before the purveyors of grand theory -- Metz, Mulvey, et. al. -- came onto the scene around 1970. As the pendulum swings from the culturalist to the biologist stance, Bordwell and the Wisconsin-Madison school of film studies represent, through their focus on middle-level research, an alternative approach which, in matters of perspective and interest, clearly has more in common with the classical theorists than with either of the grand theoretical paradigms.


The work of David Bordwell represents at the same time both an aesthetic and a historical turn in contemporary cinema studies. His and Noel Carroll's call for a piecemeal, problem-oriented research program in _Post-Theory_ materializes in his following publication _On the History of Film Style_ (1997), which demonstrates that the middle-level approach can function remarkably well without the accessory of grand theory. In the Introduction to the book Bordwell explains the values of making inquiries into the poetics of cinema as an alternative to culturalist agendas, which often tend to make epistemological claims that are too broad and formulaic:


'stylistic history is one of the strongest justifications for film studies as a distinct academic discipline. If studying film is centrally concerned with 'reading' movies in the manner of literary texts, any humanities scholar armed with a battery of familiar interpretive strategies could probably do as well as anyone trained in film analysis. This is especially true as hermeneutic practices across the humanities have come to converge on the same interpretive schemas and heuristics. But if we take film studies to be more like art history or musicology, interpretive reading need not take precedence over a scrutiny of change and stability within stylistic practices.' [28]


Unlike the grand theories of culturalism and biologism, Bordwell's conception of a style-centered research strategy acknowledges the primacy and irreducibility of the text for film scholarship. This position, however, does not, as some might be prone to think, usher us into an impenetrable formalism. One still needs to consider the dialectics of film viewing; that is, the process by which the text manifests itself fully only in the consciousness of a perceiving subject. These ideas are by no means incompatible. A recognition of the activity of the viewer does not preclude a textual focus (and vice versa), but sustains it in the sense that the history of cinema stylistics and film form is the result of a certain competence shared by filmmakers and audiences alike. Viewer constructivism and formal patterns are both part of the same filmic process. The latter, notwithstanding, assumes a flexibility which the former does not. Take for instance the faculty of vision, which has not changed much throughout human history. Whatever type of formal examination of a given film we might undertake, the paramount function enacted by our visual organs remains invariant. The constancy of our perceptual system does not imply that this mechanism is in any way less significant than the aesthetic phenomena in the film text, but merely that to problematize vision in every film analysis is perhaps not required. Evidently, this is an exaggeration, but the principle should be clear enough, and it is also representative of other evolutionary elements within the cognitive grand theory. Narrativity is an example. When Grodal remarks that the investment in narratives is a universal feature, [29] it has important repercussions for a theory of reception, since it suggests, implicitly, that the quality of narrativity is equally aesthetic *and* cognitive. Although the latter component is just as consequential as the former, albeit, there appears to be little need to rehearse the biological aspect whenever given the opportunity to do so. Because the nature of universal features is such that it intrinsically resists change (except for change of an abnormally slow kind), the continuation of the inquiry which lead to the postulation of the universal has in a certain sense become redundant. Our perceptual apparatus, naturally, does not change with the same pace as formal, stylistic and technological phenomena. Hence, the pursuit of an evolutionary epistemology in cinema studies does not seem to be as critical an enterprise as the exploration of the ever metamorphosing patterns of film style. There is no evident correlation between an expanding knowledge of biological factors on the one hand, and the shedding of light on aesthetic patterns in films on the other. Will a grand biological theory be able to explain phenomena such as, say, recurring formal patterns in the films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the use of color in the cinema of Takeshi Kitano, or the ever increasing presence of spectacle in contemporary Hollywood film? I do not argue against the pertinence of cognitive grand theory as a *background* against which the study of cinema might take place. As I mention earlier, however, serious problems may result if or when the Neo-Darwinian paradigm aspires to become the next grand theory.


In contrast to the ecologically oriented grand theory, much of the 1970s SLAB approach appears to be both unsuitable and contrafactive, particularly in its penchant for making sweeping generalizations about the text-viewer relation. I will use one familiar assertion to illustrate the difference between grand theorizing and a middle-level procedure. Concomitant with the problematization of the notion of the *gaze* within psychosemiotics was the claim that all of cinema was essentially about voyeurism, e.g. Jane Gaines's remark that the film industry represents the 'institutionalization of voyeurism'. [30] According to this theory, to assume the position of the spectator was therefore in effect to embrace perversion. In opposition to this totalistic theory one might imagine a middle-level hypothesis proposing that there might be individual films, say _Rear Window_, _Blue Velvet_ or _Sliver_, which in significant ways really are about voyeurism. Not only does the latter claim appear less excessive and more specific, but it also returns reflection on cinema to the level of the text.


There is also one more reason to reject the grand theory of voyeurism, one which involves the nature of the medium of cinema. Nobody is likely to dispute that the textuality of film is made out of images and sounds. Hence, what enables the perceiving subject to access the text of the film in the first place is an act of looking. The active gaze, female as well as male, is therefore an instrument of textual admission, and precedes the possible onset of the psychological modality known as voyeurism. Those who maintain that all of cinema is about voyeurism conflate the required perceptual activity which grants us access to the text with the highly specified activity of obtaining pleasure by watching others perform sexual acts. Such a conflation illustrates the theoretical vulnerability of arguments that rely heavily upon the use of analogy. The notion of voyeurism as generally applicable to film, however, is manifestly meaningless because the analogical scenario it sets up happens to be a necessary condition for the technical perception of filmic textuality. Thus, cinema can be no more about voyeurism than other media that fundamentally involve vision, i.e. the graphic arts. Moreover, I suspect that few would agree to the claim that all literature was ultimately about reading. There are certainly literary works which thematize the act of reading, but one can hardly claim that every single novel or poem foreground the activity of reading as its main diegetic emphasis. The act of reading, just as that of looking in the cinema or in the art gallery, is a technical act which facilitates the entrance into the world of the text.


By framing specific questions that take their cue in part from the nature of the textual material examined rather than from some all-embracing theory with claims to universality, one might avoid the kind of self-fulfilling and occasionally tautological explanations proffered by the grand theories of film studies. Finally, middle-level theorizing embodies an enduring commitment to what is undeniably the central aspects of the discipline. In closing this essay, I am reminded of an advice given by J. Hillis Miller:


'My recommendation is that we should give up the attempt to transfer ethical themes directly from literature to life. It would follow that departments of literature should reduce their function to a kind of linguistic hygiene, that is, to a study of the rhetoric of literature, what might be called 'literariness'. The rest should be left to departments of history, philosophy, religion, American studies, Victorian studies, programs in 'modern thought', and so on, where that rest belongs.' [31]


University of Bergen, Norway





1. Noel Burch, _Theory of Film Practice_ [1973], trans. Helen R. Lane (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 144.


2. T. E. Hulme, _Selected Writings_, ed. Patrick McGuinness (Manchester: Fyfield Books, 1998), p. 58.


3. See W. K. Wimsatt Jr and Monroe C. Beardsley, 'The Intentional Fallacy' (1946) and 'The Affective Fallacy' (1940), both in W. K. Wimsatt Jr, _The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry_ [1954] (London: Methuen, 1970), pp. 3-18 and 21-39.


4. See David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, eds, _Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies_ (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996). (Film-Philosophy's review)


5. The name of the conference was 'Grand, Medium and Small Film Theories -- Nordic Film Theory at the Turn of the Millennium', hosted by the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of Copenhagen in December 1999.


6. Torben Grodal, 'Grand Theory and Post Theory: Reflections on Trends in Cognitive Film Studies' (unpublished conference paper), 'Grand, Medium and Small Film Theories -- Nordic Film Theory at the Turn of the Millenium' (University of Copenhagen, 10 December 1999), p. 2.


7. Ibid., pp. 2-3.


8. Some core texts in the 'Grand Theory' of the 1970s and early 1980s are: Jean-Louis Baudry, 'Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus', _Film Quarterly_, vol. 28 no. 2, Winter 1974-75, pp. 39-47; Laura Mulvey, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', _Screen_, vol. 16 no. 3, Autumn 1975, pp. 6-18; Paul Willemen, 'Voyeurism, The Look, and Dwoskin', _Afterimage_, no. 6, 1976, pp. 40-50; Daniel Dayan, 'The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema', _Film Quarterly_, vol. 28 no. 1, Fall 1974, pp. 22-31; Christian Metz, _The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema_ (London and Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1982); and Kaja Silverman, _The Subject of Semiotics_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).


9. For the Bellour article, see _Screen_, vol. 15, Winter 1974-75, pp. 7-17; and for Heath, see _Questions of Cinema_ (London: Macmillan, 1981).


10. See Bordwell and Carroll, _Post-Theory_, pp. 38-52.


11. Ibid., pp. 13-17.


12. Bordwell, _Narration in the Fiction Film_ (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), p. 30.


13. In the course of the last fifteen years the field of cinema studies has accommodated a continuous flow of inflections of cognitive and biological theories. Bordwell's own _Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema_ (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989) was among the first. Later publications include: Edward Branigan, _Narrative Comprehension and Film_ (London: Routledge, 1992); Murray Smith, _Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema_ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995); Richard Allen, _Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) (Film-Philosophy's review); Warren Buckland, _The Film Spectator: From Sign to Mind_ (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995) (Film-Philosophy's review); Greg Currie, _Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) (Film-Philosophy's review); Joseph Anderson, _The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory_ (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996) (Film-Philosophy's review); Ed Tan, _Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine_ (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996); Torben Grodal, _Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings, and Cognition_ (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997) (Film-Philosophy's review); and Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith, eds, _Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion_ (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).


14. I am limiting this observation to the theoretical branch of film research. That of film criticism is obviously intrinsically disposed toward issues relating to aesthetics.


15. Anderson, _The Reality of Illusion_, p. 15.


16. Ibid., p. 127.


17. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, _Film Art: An Introduction_ [1979] (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), p. 52.


18. Monroe C. Beardsley, _The Possibility of Criticism_ (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970), p. 44.


19. Ibid., p. 40.


20. Ibid., p. 111.


21. Wimsatt and Beardsley, 'The Affective Fallacy', in Wimsatt, _Verbal Icon_, p. 32.


22. Grodal, 'Grand Theory and Post Theory', p. 10.


23. Laura Mulvey, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', in Philip Rosen, ed., _Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology_ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 208.


24. Paul Willemen, 'Voyeurism, The Look, and Dwoskin', in Rosen, ed., _Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology_, p. 210.


25. Torben Grodal, _Cognition, Emotion and Visual Fiction: Theory and Typology of Affective Patterns and Genres in Film and Television_ (Copenhagen: Department of Film and Media Studies, 1994), p. 56.


26. Grodal, 'Grand Theory and Post Theory', p. 5.


27. Plantinga and Smith, _Passionate Views_, p. 3.


28. David Bordwell, _On the History of Film Style_ (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 8. (Film-Philosophy's review)


29. Grodal, 'Grand Theory and Post Theory', p. 5.


30. Jane Gaines, 'Women and Representation: Can We Enjoy Alternative Pleasure?', in Patricia Erens, ed., _Issues in Feminist Film Criticism_ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 75.


31. J. Hillis Miller, 'Is There an Ethics of Reading?', in James Phelan, ed., _Reading Narrative: Form, Ethics, Ideology_ (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989), p. 99.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


Asbjørn Grønstad, 'The Appropriational Fallacy: Grand Theories and the Neglect of Film Form', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 23, August 2002 <>.



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