Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 40, November 2003

 

 

Jan-Christopher Horak

 

Change and Nothing But Change:

Rosen's _Change Mummified_

 

 

Philip Rosen

_Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory_

Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001

ISBN 0-8166-3637-0

445 pp.

 

The title of Philip Rosen's new book is taken from an Andre Bazin quote and is admittedly an oxymoron, but one that perfectly encapsulates the central premise of the author's new radical theory of historiography. While traditional histories attempt to capture and stabilize the past from an equally static position of presentness, Rosen argues for a new subject position that would not only create narratives of pastness that are destabilized and in a constant state of flux, but that would also define the subject position of the historian in the context of temporality, embracing constantly shifting relations between present and past. The lynchpin for such a historiography is the recuperation of Bazin's concept of the indexical in the image. While 1970s film theory consigned Bazin and his Catholic inflected theory of realism to the position of 'other', Rosen argues that all moving-image media, even digital media, can only be made intelligible through referents of indexicality. In a series of chapters dedicated to fiction and documentary, classical Hollywood narrative and Third World cinema, analogue early cinema and digital imaging, Rosen attempts nothing less that a synthesis of classical and poststructuralist film theory, while also moving the latter from its previously ahistorical positioning to a firm contextual grounding in history.

 

In 'nuancing 1970s film theory's opposition to Bazin', Rosen argues in his first chapter that 'the construction that is history is necessarily to be read against some standard of the real' (7), in other words, both the construction of history and of film theory implicates the defining of a relationship between the subject and the universe of objects, whether they exist in the present or past. Not some ideal objectivity is at stake, if one reads Bazin against the grain, but rather a subjective investment in the image as an indexical trace of some form of objectivity; as a referent that actually existed in the past.

 

In discussing Bazin's metaphor of 'the mummy complex' in 'The Ontology of the Photographic Image', Rosen then switches gears, defining in psychoanalytic terms a 'founding desire' for the creation of all representational art, namely 'the sublimation of this impossible impulse to defeat death', to exist outside of the temporal (21). While previous readers have focused on Bazin's ontology of the moving image and it's inherent properties as a medium for realism, Rosen argues that the subject is indeed central to Bazin's theory. According to Rosen, the subject's perception of the real in images is a function of its 'preservation obsession' -- the need to defeat time by freezing it in the image. Yet since history can only be defined in and through time, Rosen ultimately concludes that the weakness in Bazin's history lies in his attempt to negotiate time through a timeless phenomenological intentionality of the subject.

 

Which brings Rosen to his second chapter, 'Entering History: Preservation and Restoration'. Rosen begins with a discussion of the French architect Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, whose concept of *l'unite de style* was extremely influential in 19th century architectural restoration, and the critique of that concept by John Ruskin, who favored preservation over restoration. The fundamental difference between these two positions is their relationship to history. While restorationists look at the past as a moment in time that can be isolated and encapsulated, in order to be viewed from the present as a fixed later moment in time, preservationists see time as an unbroken continuity, which can neither be reversed nor tampered with. One school sees the historical past as knowable, available to the present through the scientific methodologies of historical inquiry, the other school emphasizes the chasm between the present and the past, between life and death, making any knowledge of the past a matter of complete conjecture. For restorationists this meant in practical terms removing all traces of modernization when 'restoring' a building to its original architectural style, while preservationists are apt let conflicting styles from successive epochs remain visible, while structurally securing a building for the future.

 

But the differences between preservation and restoration soon begin to break down in Rosen's discussion of Greenfield Village (Michigan) and Williamsburg (Virginia), two attempts to reconstruct the past physically. While 'preservation' bases its truth value on the fact that all its parts are corroborated traces a real past, restoration emphasizes the reconstruction of a historical whole, even if its individual parts are not actual artifacts. Indeed, much more important than these differing versions of a historical imaginary, is the fact that the impetus for preservation and restoration is the same, namely to recuperate a 'spirit of the past'. In other words, ideological concerns cannot be divorced from the project of historical reconstruction, 'objectivity is in the service of subjectivity' (67). In the reconstruction of historical villages, as well as in many historical museums, America's pre-industrial and agrarian past is put on view for the contemporary visitor, thus disavowing the anxieties connected with the rise of a predatory corporate capitalism. As historians know, the 'good old days' were hardly as happy as the images these edifices suggest, while their actual existence in the present allows the subject to believe that there are still other traces of the past in the present. So objectivity is again only possible through the obliteration of the temporal, of history itself, through a fetishistic investment in parts to construct a historical totality from an implied static position in the present. Rosen's solution is to suggest a history that avoids as much as possible the transcendence of the temporal by maintaining a 'dynamic consciousness of temporality' (77).

 

Given the centrality of time (as opposed to Bazin's space) in Rosen's text, he next turns in Chapter 3 to Western conceptions of temporality. Referencing Foucault and others, Rosen notes that the nineteenth-century impetus to control and manage time was a necessary step for mass society to reign in and standardize human subjectivity, allowing it to produce capital efficiently through human labor. It is no accident that the mid-19th century sees the invention of inexpensive time pieces, available to even workers in the factories, while of course the central tenant of Taylorism in the early 20th century is time management. Quoting Reinhart Koselleck, Rosen then demonstrates the way the construction of history itself evolved from these new notions of controlling time: while pre-Enlightenment historical temporality was always in a sense timeless, mixing past and present, myth and theology, historical explication and future prediction, modern historicity segments time both linearly and directionally, articulating cause and effect relationships to explain historical development in time. The empirical segmentation of the past utilizes critically authenticated documents as proof not only for the existence of a given past, but also for the correctness of its chronology. In other words, indexical traces are again brought into play to create historical sequencing, *pars par toto*, assuming of course that the present is an absolute, a fixed subjectivity. In point of fact, the present is in a constant state of becoming the past, so that the historian's positionality must necessarily remain unstable. Like the cinematic subject, the historian is tied to an impossible undertaking, namely the recuperation of the past into the present.

 

Rosen moves to specific case studies in Part II, beginning with a discussion of mainstream film, in particular the way the classical Hollywood studios privileges research to give credibility to the historical narratives in their costume pictures. As the former director of Universal Studios Archives, which included the now defunct Research Department, founded in 1916, I can attest to the truth of Rosen's statement that 'research has been a constant in film history' (149). Universal's Research Department was a library of universal knowledge, including a smattering of books on virtually every subject, while its document, clippings, and photography files were organized according to a topology of human knowledge. While Universal had the oldest research department in Hollywood, all the major studios maintained such departments in the classical period and invested substantial funds in staff and acquisitions. (At the end of the studio era, research departments fell victim to 'overhead' cost-cutting, and eventually most were sold or donated to non-profit libraries.) But to what end did the studios invest?

 

According to Rosen, the historically 'accurate' details supplied or confirmed by research departments -- indexical traces all -- allowed for a referentiality to a historical past, when the profilmic event itself was a reconstruction. Referring to Bathes, Rosen sees in the construction of historical film narratives a double conversion from the camera's pastness and from the pastness of the diegesis to the subject's present. Importantly, the spectator's investment is not in the documentary force of the image *per se* (its indexicality), but rather in the film narrative as an indexical trace of the past. Narrative is a social ordering of time, hence ideology.

 

This point is elaborated in Rosen's next chapter, where he discusses the transition from early cinema's *actualities* to Hollywood classical narrative in the post-1915 period by analyzing _A Policeman's Tour of the World_ (1906), which mixes documentary and staged studio footage. While the film does attempt to create an ideological orientation through editing and a final apotheosis, it is clear that the indexicality of early cinema here has yet to be harnessed in narrative. While the narrative frame attempts to construct a Western imperialist view of the Third World, the actuality footage seemingly needs a lecturer or other intertextual intervention (as would have been the case in most early travelogue film programs) to support such a subject position. According to Rosen, the film's actuality footage continuously removes the subject from the diegesis, so that the subject's position remains unstable, trapped in the 'fragmentation, inconsistencies, and textual indeterminacies' (212) that the narrative can neither contain nor force meaning onto. More importantly for understanding the development of classical narrative as an efficient means of ideological control, _A Policeman's Tour of the World_ puts the subject in an ambiguous and untenable position by constructing a central character for possible identification who is a thief, and thus a negative social model. Rosen concludes that the film 'lacks the means, and perhaps the will, to decide even this narrational ambivalence textually' (213). Classical narrative would learn from such 'mistakes'.

 

From early cinema's origins in *actualities* Rosen turns to the classical documentary and its utilization of modern historiographical methodologies. The author begins by contrasting the 'live' television coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with the documentaries produced after the fact, noting that while the former hungers for images of the real (live location feeds not yet being a technological possibility), the documentaries of the same event consciously construct history from the same footage. In discussing the documentary idea, Rosen returns to John Grierson, who in fact coined the term, as it relates to film. What for the modern historian are documentary artifacts, namely indexical traces of a past that is no longer directly observable, are for the documentary filmmaker filmed images of the real world. As Rosen notes:

 

'Modern historicity constructs meaningful, unified temporal sequences, and whatever the rhetorical and disciplinary importance of documentary evidence in asserting their factuality, the pertinence of documents in intricated *a priori* with the *ex post facto* significance of the historical sequence.' (239)

 

The very same statement can be made for the Griersonian idea of documentary, namely that the form creates meaning through historical sequencing of images of the real. In contrast to actuality footage, then, the documentary is nothing less than an ideological project to harness images of the real to historical narratives that firmly address and form the subject, and it is no accident that the documentary form appears at the same time that classical Hollywood narrative is institutionalized. Just as classical narrative is organized around the perspective of a central character for audience identification, so too is the documentary constructed from a unified authorial voice (what later *cinema verite* proponents would decry as the voice of g-d.). Grierson's ideological perspective is that of a liberal elite, seeking social good in the face of the chaos of mass society. Furthermore,

 

'both Hollywood film and the documentary tradition, in their insistence on craft, skill, and sequence -- in short on aesthetics and meaning -- provide a function for a specialized elite in the implementation of significance for the spectator by means of the configuration and organization of documents' (245-46).

 

Interestingly, Rosen concludes the chapter by maintaining the (at least partial) relevance of Griersonian ideas in the era of television and video, even as he refutes Baudrillard's thesis that the endless reproducibility of significations of the real in postmodernism obliterates the intellectual elite's ability to construct history and by extension control social and political power. After all, history is still being written and documentaries are still being taken seriously as constructions of a real past.

 

Next Rosen turns to a 'radical historicity' as articulated in Ousmane Sembene's fictional history of the conquest of Africa by Islam in _Ceddo_ (1976). In contrast to Western historiography, Sembene understands history to be 'the interplay of collective groups and forces' (271), where no single narrative emerges as dominant. Rosen explicates the way Sembene deconstructs classical shot/reverse shot constructions and the use of close-ups through an open spatial construction of a scene, in order to explode the authority of a single unified narrative voice addressing the subject, constructing instead multiple representations of history which, even in conflict, form the basis for national identity. Not the individual psychology of the agents involved in the discourse is at issue, but rather their collective identities in the historical process: iman, king, ceddo (common people), griot (oral historian). Just as important as Sembene's construction of filmic space is his attitude towards temporality, specifically the positionality of the historian. By imagining not only what was, but also, through the creation of dream sequences, what could have been, Sembene dissolves the chronological inevitability of western historical narratives, i.e. he deconstructs the cause and effect thinking inherent in much modern historiography, in order to create a space for radical alternatives. This notion takes us beyond the cultural specificity of Africa, the Third World, and Sembene's project, 'to construct a self-consciously postcolonial national cinema in Senegal' (200) -- to imagine the historian's positionality as fluid in time, rather than fixed, thus inviting the subject to participate in the construction of a different kind of history.

 

Finally, Rosen turns to that most significant of paradigm shifts, the supplanting of analogue by digital media. The author first makes the point that in the postmodern era analogue media are actually equated with indexicality, whereby the digital is defined in contradistinction to 'archaic' imaging systems as 'other', and is seen as superior to them. Unlike photography, film, and even television, which rely on the physicality of light to create indexical traces of the real in these media, the digital is constituted solely as an infinitely malleable set of binary numbers. Indeed, the digital seems to destroy the relationship between image and its referent, between the present and the profilmic past, and thus eliminates the historicity inherent in the reception of analogue images, as discussed in Rosen's previous chapters: 'Digital imaging is not just a matter of technically efficient inscription, but of sundering the contact between world and image, and between machine and reference, which is the very currency of the indexical.' (306) The break between image and referent makes it possible to manipulate the image to an unprecedented degree. However, while these assertions seem to have much currency in present discourses on digital media, Rosen characterizes them as being in fact constructions of a digital utopia, rather than an analysis of a digital ontology; predictions about our digital future, rather than descriptions of the digital present.

 

Rosen's first point is well taken: Even the digital is subject to indexical referentiality, if it is to create meaning. Thus, the pure numerical data from an observation satellite, as well as the digital camera's ability to transform light intensities into digital code, depend on referents in the real world if they are to be made intelligible. Without them the numbers remain just that: abstractions in code. Rosen theorizes that the digital in fact mimics photography, film, and television, relying on their compositional and technical codes, making the digital a hybrid, just as photography, film, and television had previously co-opted earlier forms of image making. For example, the computer based construction of 3-D digital spaces which appear to be real have only been realized through the utilization of Renaissance central perspective and its math of Cartesian coordinates. Indeed, Rosen quotes theorists who have asserted that digital imaging has lead to the rebirth of perspective, after modernism had declared it as dead as a doornail. In other words, the digital is hardly new, but rather its intelligibility relies on 'prior histories of mediated representation on screen surfaces' (314).

 

Focusing on a digital future, on the forecast, as Rosen puts it, allows digital utopians to circumvent issues dealing with its hybridity, but does not change the fact that such utopian discourses are based on an idealism, much as Bazin's realism was an idealistic construct. The digital utopia hinges on three key concepts: practically infinite manipulability, convergence, and interactivity. Rosen counters that: 1, even analogue media are malleable, so that the digital is only a matter of degree, rather than of a sudden appearance of such capability -- however, digital media, supported by a discourse of conquest, can also manipulate all preexisting analogue media and images, thus obliterating their past histories; 2, the ideal of convergence, of infinite reproducibility and transmittal among media machines (computers), while a technical possibility, is subject to the parameters of the marketplace, i.e. to the exchange value generated through such distributions; 3, interactivity at present, while allowing for manipulation in the act of reception remains highly dependent on finite and preprogrammed technical options.

 

Digital's supposedly radically new interactivity implies the total immersion of the subject, but Rosen asks: was that not also the ideal of other preexisting media from the stereoscope to Hale's Tours to IMAX? More importantly, the ideal of complete interactivity rests on 'the dialectic between subjective interiority and objective exteriority' (341) typical of all representations of the real. Crucially for digital interactivity, the subject understands that the images it perceives are merely derived from numerical code, but the manipulation of the image, the navigation of digital space, is indeed real, investing the interactive experience with the truth value of the real, rather than the images themselves. 'This makes the image an indexical representation of the action of its spectator' (343), concludes Rosen, and with that, the digital is no longer radically new, but only another point on the continuum in the history of the subject. Ultimately, then, Rosen's complaint about discourses on the digital seems to be that they too disavow history, creating a fetish of the new. Like the discourse on the 'birth' of cinema, which, as a result of early cinema studies, is now seen as just a further evolution of previously existing visual media, rather than as *sui generis*, so too does Rosen wish to place digital media in its proper historical context as a medium in a constant state of flux.

 

Where does that leave us? Clearly Rosen equates -- as did most 1970s film theorists, including Laura Mulvey -- the unified viewpoint of classical Hollywood narrative, whether constructed in fiction features or documentaries, as an ideological position that is untenable in a non-authoritarian world that recognizes and accepts racial, ethnic, and gender difference. Not only does classical Hollywood narrative force a single, presumably reactionary ideological point of view of history on the subject, it also disavows the subjects own positionality in time, transporting them into a timeless state outside history. Rosen suggests that by deconstructing the formal conventions of continuity editing and character identification through shot/reverse shot constructions, the subject is given the freedom to enter into history, rather than deny it. History itself is seen not as giving monolithic meaning to sequentially ordered events, but as a continual series of never-ending, never quite resolved conflicts which defy causality. Referring to Walter Benjamin's 'Theses on the Philosophy of History', Rosen instead suggests that the historian anticipate the transformation of social relations and subjectivities, rather than react defensively against them. It is an admirable and lofty goal, given ordinary human's intense desire for stasis and stability.

 

Hollywood Entertainment Museum

Hollywood, California, USA

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Jan-Christopher Horak, 'Change and Nothing But Change: Rosen's _Change Mummified_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 40, November 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n40horak>.

 

 

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