Writing for Film as Overdetermined Praxis

Terri Ginsberg

December 15, 2016

In 2003, I wrote an article entitled, “‘Dumbing Down’ and the Politics of Neoliberalism in Film and/as Media Studies,” for the Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies (ed. Henry Giroux). In that piece, I spoke critically about the effects of the post-Cold War corporate restructuring of the modern university on the educational integrity of the cinema studies field, which at the time had just begun to be subsumed under the newer, transdisciplinary field of media studies. These effects included, among other things, the digitization of cinematic knowledge-practice, a process by which the same coordinates of perception, thought and action are implemented across different fields, reducing concepts to one-dimensional “aggregates” (Pierre Bourdieu); and by which, as a result, analogic and dialectical thinking are replaced by paradigms that lack synthetic mechanisms and may even forego analysis altogether. Sixteen years later, academic knowledge-practice within the liberal arts has become almost thoroughly digitized. The salient symptom of this development within cinema-as-media-studies is arguably the failure of writing—by scholars as well as students of film.

Traditionally, academic cinema studies focuses on the aesthetic judgment of film, whether for its own sake or with respect to film’s sociological and ideological implications. The first cinema studies occasions were film appreciation courses offered during the 1930s at U.S. universities such as NYU, Columbia, The New School, USC, and Northwestern, and at York University in Canada. Students enrolled in these courses, which were placed in a variety of disciplinary contexts, attended lectures by professional cineastes who encouraged students to write critically about films screened and discussed in class, sometimes in relation to assigned readings written by early theorists and sociologists of cinema such as Hugo Munsterberg, Vachel Lindsey, Sergei Eisenstein, Rudolf Arnheim, and Thorstein Veblen. The point of early film criticism was not necessarily to locate and evaluate themes, a practice which assumes that films signify in much the same way as do novels and poems. Nor was film criticism meant as an evaluation of star and directorial intertexts, the aim of which is to celebrate the Hollywood studio system, in which case films serve merely to illustrate authorial, performative, and industrial referents. Instead, attention to the referential capacity of film, which derives from the medium’s historical intersection with photography, was subordinated to the formal and narrative-compositional structures enabling any such capacity.

Writing about film was considered crucial to this repositioning of perspective. At its most basic, writing about film entails note-taking during the viewing occasion, an act of mediation which facilitates the distanciation necessary to renewing spectatorial attention vis-à-vis the cinematic experience. More substantively, writing itself is an act of mediation, in this case one between the imaginary rehearsal of a film once it has been viewed, and the symbolic apprehension of ensuing screen memories in the course of one’s attempt to make sense of them. That said, writing is not merely an act of mediation; writing is an overdetermined praxis, and for this reason courses on film criticism entail ideological engagement. It is not for nothing that the most significant film-critical paradigms have drawn from psychoanalytic theory traceable to Freud via Lacan, and from Marxist theory traceable via Althusser. The canonical writings of Christian Metz, in the first instance, and of Jean-Louis Baudry and Jean-Louis Comolli, in the second instance, which, since their inceptions more than 40 years ago, have been the subject of important and necessary critiques, remain foundational to this tendency—and to the ways in which cinema studies understands and teaches its primary object.

Since the end of the Cold War, when neoliberal developments escalated, the academic study of cinema, echoing its contemporary postmodern conditions, has become increasingly alienated from its disciplinary-theoretical bases. It is increasingly rare, for example, for purported works of film scholarship either to grapple with or evidence serious, much less comprehensive, knowledge of the field’s critical history. Historicist directorial and national-cinematic overviews, on the one hand, and empiricist evaluations of film audience reception, on the other hand, have come to substitute for—or at least have taken visible precedence—over philosophically framed aesthetic criticism, on the one hand, and politically framed sociological criticism, on the other hand.  Within this intellectual interregnum (as Gramsci might have called it) between the old-new and the new-old, a hegemonic mode of digitized cognition has taken hold, encouraged and underscored by the strength and pervasiveness of digital culture and technology, which has rendered it increasingly difficult to introduce to students, and engage them on a sustained basis with, the key theoretical paradigms of film criticism, not to mention the aesthetic and political problematics within which such paradigms are situated. This theoretical-historical hiatus marks in effect the evacuation of critical thinking, a mode of intelligibility which, contrary to its commonsensical definition, is less a learned tolerance for diversity fostered by the phenomenological (mis)recognition that an issue has more than one side, or that a text has more than one layer, or, by the same token, that, taken together, multiple sides and layers may be so broad and varied that some of them will, alas, inevitably be absented from one’s critical purview; than it is, by contrast, a means by which the relationship between ideational sides and textual layers is understandable epistemologically, as a matter of political-historical contestation, and by which the act of comprehending and in turn of writing seriously about such “difference” necessitates taking a position regarding it within the contested terrain. In the absence of theory, however, such genuine critical thinking is travestied when not entirely disallowed, and meaningful writing about film is reduced to the implicitly reactionary, essentially fruitless task of attempting perpetually to reinvent the disciplinary wheel in a vehicular vacuum.

The intellectual comportment of today’s film student is a symptomatic case in point. Most film students do not take notes during classroom screenings for fear of “missing out”: their lack of exposure to theory makes them resistant to the mediational rupture of visual pleasure which note-taking produces. Most film students likewise prefer to discuss a film’s manifest content—to read through the cinematic device—rather than to analyze its formal and narrative-compositional structuring. Not only have the cognitive entailments of digital culture reshaped their sense of the “real”; the reinforcement of digitized knowledge-practice within the primary and secondary educational systems has served to normalize that sensibility through what, generally speaking, is little more than rote learning at the register of ideational form—in this instance, without the usual content to be memorized—whereupon a contentless perspective emerges which, in an irony, mimics the evacuated intellectual positionality of the contemporary cinema studies discipline itself.

While there is much more to say about these conditions and their effects (stay tuned), suffice it here to say that one cannot overemphasize the importance of resisting them pedagogically by, in view of their hegemonic conditions, reinforcing rather than diminishing the praxis of writing within and outside of the film studies classroom, indeed in all courses that engage interpretive culture. Such writing must not be alienated from its occasions of analysis; it should not be narrowly “technical” or “discipline-based,” but should instead take as its premise the contestational center of all creative and intellectual work, and thus of the general labor of mediation that may henceforth be understood as the transformative mandate of a modern, not least cinematic, education.