Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 30, May 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sean Cubitt

 

Reply to Richard Misek

 

 

Richard Misek

'Analogue Film, Digital Discourse: Sean Cubittıs _The Cinema Effect_'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 29, May 2005

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n29misek

 

First let me thank Richard Misek for a painstaking and substantial review. I'm immensely grateful for the time he has spent on my book. I lived with it for five years, between one thing and another, including other books, and I can confirm that from the outset _The Cinema Effect_ was never 'derived from' the places where fragments of it were presented. There is great generosity in the review Misek has written, and some frustration too. In his conclusion Misek asks three questions: Why did I write the book in the way I did? Why such complex language and such a schematic structure? What is my primary intellectual objective? I'll try to answer. In particular I want to use this opportunity to make a plea for writing as an integral element of critical practice.

 

Misek comes close to answering the last question in his second paragraph: 'If _The Cinema Effect_ has a dominant theme, it is that of film's increasingly complex delineation of space and time'. A core theme of the book is the increasing spatialisation of cinema, and its decreasing interest in time. I only dropped the word 'time' from the various working titles the book had over the years because I didn't want to spend too much of the manuscript going head to head with Gilles Deleuze (for the record, I greatly enjoyed Deleuze's books on their appearance. But rather like what happened to Lacan's seminars, the more an acolyte culture tries to systematise what are effectively essays, the less interesting the work becomes). The spatialising tendency is, I believe, integral to the actual deployment of digital technologies in contemporary representational media (specifically spreadsheets, geographical information systems, and databases, which have taken over the hegemonic role from narrative, photographic, or painted depictions). Popular post-structuralism -- Foucauldian, for example -- seem to me to perpetuate just this abolition or elision of historical and temporal process. Incidentally it is this question of time and its direction towards the future that leads to the use of the term 'destiny' which Misek contests. The answer is, I hope, clarified in the distinction made late in the book between fate and destiny: the former understood as the imposition of a completed future on an emergent present, the latter as the actualisation of potential.

 

Yes, I did knock the language-centred approach of Metz. Perhaps the best of critics after Bazin, Metz nonetheless belongs to a historical epoch in which a certain kind of linguistics held sway as a model of semiotics. In the same way that I argue that cinema is not fundamentally narrative, I cannot believe that it is fundamentally linguistic. Of course it can be linguistic, and at its most depressing it often is: when the script is the engine that drives the film, which it is in all those instances where the commercial imperative requires a script in order to produce a budget. This is by no means meant to signify a dislike for language (as I'll try to describe below). It does suggest that cinema is fundamentally audiovisual, not verbal; and that the work of criticism is therefore in part an act of translation from the audiovisual to words. Where the opposite is the case, the work of the film is to escape from its verbal origin, and in doing so to produce an immanent critique of its commodity function. This is Comolli and Narboni's famous 'category 'e'' -- the internally dialectical film never intended to break any mould, but it pretty much accounts for any commercial movie that inspires interest. My critique of Metz is based on the spatialising metaphor of language as structure. At the same time, the book begins with a quote from Metz because it owes so much to him.

 

And yes, the not-very-well-hidden antagonist of the plot is David Bordwell. Misek argues that Bordwell's account of cinema as an accumulation of sense data and its processing became established because Bordwell provided 'the linguistic expression' of a new analysis. My work he describes as 'just a metaphor', and the distinction between linguistic expression and metaphor is a fine one. My feeling is that accumulating and processing are metaphorical expressions, whose basis lies in a conception of the individual as a kind of computer, the founding metaphor of cognitive science. I differ from the cognitive stance because, to maintain the metaphor, I believe human communication is a network, not a stand-alone machine. Not much of interest occurs within the bone box of the skull, and what does is opaque to anyone standing outside it (though see the notes on authorship in my chapter on Cohl). I suppose you could say I err in the direction of behaviourism, but a behaviourism in the throes of a meeting with systems theory and historical materialism. My main argument with Bordwell, however, is that he appears to me to offer a normative criticism grounded in the classical Hollywood model from which all other modes of cinema are aberrations. That was the point of the RKO chapter: even in its most classical era, Hollywood's classicism is not especially realist, coherent, or symmetrical -- it is spectacular, superficial even, and deeply self-referential. In other words, it seems to me best understood as exemplary of the commodity form as it emerged from the 1929 depression. Other norms were also in formation in the 1930s, not only the total and realist norms I cover (there's a mention in the Introduction of other normative cinemas there wasn't room to address, notably in pre-independence India). The core dispute with Bordwell, however, is the presumption of an individual consciousness to which film is addressed and in which it reaches its fulfilment. My struggle is to conceive of cinema as social - whence the opening question: what does cinema do?

 

Misek contends that there are too many references. Though I've written a lot, perhaps too much, this is my first book on cinema. It was a tactical decision to prove that I 'd done my homework. At the same time, I would expect my students to read, say, Renoir's writings, or Eisenstein's, if they intended to publish on either of those directors, or to read the literature on Peckinpah before publishing on him. But it is also true that like any work of scholarship today, this one rests on the shoulders of giants, including, perhaps especially, the ones I was ambitious enough to want to critique. This is the first time I have ever used substantive footnotes. I always believed that either material should be in the book or out of it. But here some of the nitty-gritty argument (and one rather elaborate joke) takes place off-screen. Misek is correct to suspect the apparatus of entering the book: by the same principle as my critique of Bordwell, a book is a networked node constructed in difference by the library in which it comes to being. That the library in question is also a cinematheque makes its intertextuality all the richer.

 

Misek is frustrated by the language of the book, which is rhetorical, 'almost literary'. He spots between the lines my genuine pleasure in using the word 'burglarious' (it comes from Joyce) -- surely a writer, which is what I am, is permitted to enjoy words? ('Anthropophagy', by the way, is an oblique reference to the Brazilian art movement as well as appearing in its own right in order to avoid repeating the word 'cannibalism'). Words are not transparent: as Balzac noted, there are 'mysteries buried in every human word'. [1] Nor are they incapable of meaning. On the contrary, they carry complex meanings, as do films. Like any translator, I wanted to evoke in this other language of words, the richness and complexity of the films I discuss. I tried as well as I could to put something intriguing on every page, and to make, as much as possible, every sentence grammatically interesting. That the figures of rhetoric play a significant role in the subject matter and the structure of the book as well as its sentences seemed to me an appropriate homage to the problematic presence of the spoken word as a bridge between writing and recording.

 

To take a second swing at the 'primary intellectual objective' question, the reason why spatialisation matters is not just aesthetic. It has to do with the micro-history of the commodity form over the century plus of cinema history. That is the obverse of the utopian network thematic. I grew up with post-structural criticism and the analysis of the subject. This book is about the construction of the object: cinema's objects and the object cinema. Film was not only the popular entertainment par excellence of the 20th century. It was also a unique laboratory, exploring all the ways of becoming-object. That process in turn always occurs in relation to the mutations of the commodity form -- for a more Deleuzian reading of the same phenomenon see Jonathan Beller's superb essay on Vertov. [2] The schematic structure that Misek queries derives from this enquiry. It is partly periodising, three phases divided by the two great events in the 20th century history of the commodity, the Wall Street Crash and the Bretton Woods agreement. These parts of the book are also a statement of the abstraction and selection necessary to keep the book below encyclopedic length. Mostly they are there to emphasise that cinema changes, though it does not necessarily progress; that cinema has a history, and that history enters cinema, though usually not under conditions of anyone's choosing. These mutations and vicissitudes account for my love of and disappointment in cinema. The book's 'objective', where an objective is a goal beyond the book itself, is to enable future cinemas to explore and explode the commodity form.

 

Since I have the floor, due to _Film-Philosophy_'s admirable policy of right-of-reply, let me settle a couple of debts. I thought I had something new when I wrote about the Lumieres starting their shows with a still image. Tom Gunning not only beat me to the observation, but did so in places where I must have read about it. I wished, almost as soon as the manuscript was proofed, that I had read Jodi Brooks's essay 'Ghosting the Machine'. Nor had I read Mary-Ann Doane's work, which remains a treat in store for the next break from teaching. Of course there is always more to say: books are never finished, only abandoned. This one lost fifty thousand words from what I fondly believed was the final draft. It is undoubtedly better off without them. I have subsequently written another book, _EcoMedia_, pursuing some themes established in _The Cinema Effect­_. I wish I could say that it was clearer. If it isn't, it is not because I cannot write clearly, but because life is complex, cinema is multiform, the commodity is unfathomably strange, and the relationship we enter into with the world, as object or as companions, is beyond bizarre.

 

University of Waikato

Hamilton, New Zealand

 

 

Notes

 

1. Cited in Bachelard, _Water and Dreams_, p. 188.

 

2. Beller, 'Dziga Vertov and The Film of Money'; see also Beller's 'Numismatics of the Sensual, Calculus of the Image'.

 

 

References

 

Bachelard, Gaston, _Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter_, trans. Edith R. Farrell (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1983).

 

Beller, Jonathan, 'Dziga Vertov and The Film of Money', _Boundary 2_, vol. 26 no. 3, Fall 1999 <http://128.220.50.88/journals/boundary/v026/26.3beller.html>.

--- 'Numismatics of the Sensual, Calculus of the Image: The Pyrotechnics of Control', _Image and Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative_, Issue 6, 2003 <http://www.imageandnarrative.be/mediumtheory/jonathanlbeller.htm>.

 

Brooks, Jodi, 'Ghosting the Machine: The Sounds of Tap and the Sounds of Film', _Screen_, vol. 44 no. 4, Winter 2003.

 

Comolli, Jean-Louis, and Pierre Narboni, 'Cinema/Ideology/Criticism' (1) and (2), trans. Susan Bennett, in John Ellis, ed., _Screen Reader 1: Cinema/Ideology/Politics_ (London: Society for Education in Film and Television, 1977).

 

Gunning, Tom, 'An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the [In]Credulous Spectator', in Linda Williams, ed., _Viewing Positions_ (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1995).

--- 'New Thresholds of Vision: Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of the Lumiere Company', in Terry Smith, ed., _Impossible Presence: Surface and Screen in the Photogenie Era_ (Sidney: Powers Publications, 2001).

 

 

Copyright İ Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Sean Cubitt, 'Reply to Richard Misek', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 30, May 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n30cubitt>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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