The Martin Walsh Lecture at Queen's University
Let me preface the following article by saying that I was deeply honoured to have given the Martin Walsh Lecture at Queen's University, not only because I was fortunate enough to have had some personal contact with Martin Walsh but because the early years of Cine-Tracts were helped along to no small degree by Martin's committment to the project. It is fitting that Cine-Tracts will, in a limited sense, be revived shortly, when Indiana University Press publishes a selection of articles from the magazine entitled, Explorations in Film Theory.
Martin Walsh had a knack of getting right to the point, as when he asked me why we had subtitled Cine-Tracts, A Journal of Film, Communications, Culture and Politics for the first issue (circa, 1976). I responded that we wanted to develop an interdisciplinary approach to the analysis and study of film, but that we also wanted to examine other cultural phenomena such as television and the growth and development of new communications technologies. But, he asserted, we don't know all that much about the cinema nor do we have the kind of theoretical model which would allow us to cross interdisciplinary boundaries in a fluid and productive way. Perhaps, he continued, we need to define the boundaries of the discipline a bit more tightly. He of course meant the discipline of film studies, but the conversation we had revealed a problem which the journal responded to by the third issue with a new subtitle: Film and Cultural Studies.
Martin had recognized that Cine-Tracts for all of its pretensions wanted more than anything else, just to be a film journal. Now that didn't, and certainly wouldn't have precluded an interdisciplinary framework. It's simply that the journal fell prey during its first few issues, to the temptations of an interdisciplinary strategy without defining what that meant. This has relevance for the following article, because one of my central concerns at the moment is in fact to look more closely at the 'state' of the discipline of film studies, now more narrowly defined than it was in the mid-seventies, and certainlymore secure in the borders which it has demarcated for itself.
'Disciplines' or areas of study and research are in large measure created and sustained by the institutions within which they are taught. To my mind when I say that, I am presuming that a discipline cannot be taught without also being researched, even if that research consists of no more than just keeping up with the production of others in the field.
Film Studies has always been a hybrid of many disciplines. This, as we shall see, has had both negative and positive results sometimes leading to an expansion of the discipline, other times leading to a severe contraction. I would characterize the present period, the late eighties as just such a period of contraction.
The construction of a discipline is dependent upon a set of processes which are located in the structure, politics and history of institutions. This may seem obvious, but over time the processes which have produced that history are often lost from view. The struggle through which that history has been forged recedes into the background. There have been many efforts over the last fifteen years or so to build the study of film into a coherent and recognizable as well as acceptable discipline. Yet, because institutions drive towards discursive sameness (and this need not be a negative characteristic) as a means of giving disciplines credibility for teaching and research purposes, the often complex and bumpy road which has been followed doesn't appear to be a part of the discipline. In concrete terms it would be unusual for a university film department to offer students a history of its own construction because that might entail rethinking the very purpose of the department itself. Furthermore, questions as to how one discourse, say in film theory, has become more privileged than another, go right to the heart of how a consensus has been built in the first place. Even, for example, the presumption that film history needs to be taught in film departments, suggests a particular theoretical schema, one that needs to be foregrounded and not simply assumed. The internal cohesion of a discipline is driven by the demands of institutions, demands which are more often than not situated in the very language of the institutions themselves. How do the conditions of knowledge production affect the goals of discipline development?
The daily practice of film scholarship is provided with meaning by the community of researchers and teachers who together participate in constituting and creating it. That community, however heterogeneous, will inevitably search for, and then fix upon a certain set of primary ideas which it feels 'represent' the discipline. The implantation of a specific and sometimes very powerful discourse to reenforce the strength of that representation is perhaps unavoidable. What needs to be discussed are the assumptions which have produced that discourse, the politics which have governed the choices. Yet the environment of universities for example tends to militate against that happening. And so students are faced, as they are in many other disciplines, with an area called film studies which of necessity presents itself as already constituted. Again, this is perhaps unavoidable, but what interests me is how the political edge of film studies has been lost in the process and how institutionalization has created pedagogical and research models to support certain discourses over others.
Now more than ever it has become 'legitimate' to explore and then to construct the cinema as a 'field' of research. Cinema Studies has, in a short period of time, achieved what seemed very remote in the early 1970's. There are at present many teachers of cinema and an extraordinary proliferation of film departments at both the university and college level, particularly in North America. The discipline has been fragmented into a variety of specialities with each having an internal cohesion undreamed of during the early period of discipline 'construction'.
Boundaries seem to be very important to film studies, but they may be far more difficult to establish than we think. This may tell us something very important about research into film. The heterogeneity of approaches which characterized the study of film, had a great deal to do with what critical theorists like Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno recognized in the 1930's. Film was seen as the cutting edge of twentieth century culture, the practical manifestation of all that was wrong and right about the effects of new technologies upon mass audiences. If we were to reconstruct the arguments of that period we would find that the examination of film was heavily affected by debates in psychoanalysis and linguistics, as well as in literary criticism and the arts. Those debates were not seen as an infringement on the already defined territory of film studies, rather, it was if new technologies like film needed those debates, drifted inevitably towards the ideas which those debates initiated and developed.
During that period and ever since, the study of film has suffered from the presumption that as a 'low' art it was not really deserving of recognition, not deserving of a place in 'academia', and hardly deserving of the grants which are often so necessary for researchers. For seven long years CinÚ-Tracts arduously completed one grant application after another and was always refused. This despite endless meetings and discussions with a variety of different bureaucrats who all agreed that the journal was important and yet simultaneously claimed that CinÚ-Tracts was too intellectual, somehow 'too' intellectual for the field within which it was working. Things have changed a great deal since then but a residual assumption remains. Film falls into that category of 'popular' culture which is in need of examination but only just so. Even film scholarship's rather tenuous incorporation of the term 'classical' has not given it the stamp of approval which it seems to desire.
Ironically, if film represented that sphere, that cross-section of interests which reflected its position as a new technology, it also pointed the way to a re-evaluation of the critical and theoretical enterprise in the arts. Its particular organization of meaning, its effective collapse of signifier and signified, its astonishing naturalization of the difference between the real and representation, all of these characteristics meant that the study of film could not proceed along conventional lines. It is interesting to note that in each successive phase in the development of film studies, "other" disciplines have been used as if the difficulty of finding a strategy to analyse film, meant that some kind of master- code had to be found elsewhere. But as it turns out, this elsewhere suggests a division between disciplines and other areas which film studies has never been able to sustain. Film as poem, film as novel, film as text, images as sentences, as words, as frames. Film as painting, as music. Film and television, film in opposition to television and so on. I won't even begin to raise all of the comparisons with photography, the presumed interdependence, photographic metaphors, the fact that film as movement, images in movement, have always been seen in the light of images as still, photographic stills.
What we call film studies has never been able to bare its soul, to reveal, beneath of all of the comparisons, precisely that uniqueness which might distinguish it from the interlopers who camouflage it. I would suggest that film studies has been quite fortunate, because that essence just doesn't exist, and both the history of the 'discipline' and the manner in which films produce meaning, points towards the interdisciplinary as the context in which definitions of the field can best be worked out. Problems remain of course because every discipline has its own history, its own set of debates, often, its own language. But this doesn't in any way devalue the process of borrowing, albeit that more care needs to be taken with the use of other disciplines, including a more profound recognition of their internal boundaries, the constituent and constituting elements of the debates which have formed them, their sometimes unique history.
To take this a step further let me suggest that the interdisciplinary roots of film studies initially made it appear as if the discipline had no future (I am talking here about the 1960's and early 1970's.) It is not an accident that many film departments are still a part of other departments or that they are sometimes called divisions or centres. It is even less of an accident that so many film teachers are, for administrative purposes, really Art Historians English or 'Fine Arts' professors. These are the remaining signs of the earlier struggle which Imentioed above, one which reflected the hesitancy of universities to accept as legitimate a discipline associated with the 'low' arts, a popular art without any models of scholarship or a history as rigourous presumably as the study of literature. This early lack of legitimacy should not be given short thrift because it conditioned what was to come later. Film studies was built upon the desire to put in place precisely what academia thought it lacked, rigour, serious scholarship, a link to the 'high' arts, the qualities of a cultural phenomena deserving of recognition through research and publication.
Legitimation. Remember that there were very few film journals in existence in 1970. Remember also that of the journals which were being published the most important were from France and England. Cahiers du Cinema and Screen struggled with the legitimacy of the discipline all of the time and that struggle was reflected in the way in which they searched for theoretical models to explain the cinema both as an institution and as artistic expression. In the United States and Canada the most that can be said is that there were alot of professional journals around and some signs that debates overseas were provoking people into thinking about something different. I don't by any means want to exclude the avant- garde journals of the period which were coming out of New York and the West coast of the United States but they, in a sense could be comfortable with their marginality since it was the epistemological base for their filmmaking. Though this has changed over the last ten years they really didn't seek out the legitimization of academia as did many of the early writers attached to Screen, for example. Film journals have come and gone and while that history cannot be explored in this instance, it would certainly be of value to trace out the shifting sands of film scholarship through the journals which have most often displayed the oscillations and changes in the discipline's ideas about itself. One primary point should be retained here. Most of the journals were created and then developed and grew in a heated atmosphere of political debate centering in part on the discipline and in part on the very role of the cinema as a cultural institution, on its potential as a political tool. CinÚ-Tracts owes much to this convergence for it defined the editorial policies of the magazine as we searched for some definition both our own activities and those of film studies itself.
In the late 1960's under the aegis of Screen film studies 'borrowed' extensively from linguistics, structuralism and poststructuralism. The history of that borrowing cannot be gone into here suffice to say that the recognition of film as a representational device came hand in hand with an equally important debate about whether the image, hitherto taken as iconic, was in fact more complex, with effects which extended far beyond the rather limited notions of analogy which had governed much of film criticism and analysis up until that time. The join of semiotics with textual analysis, the introduction of the work of Roland Barthes, the debates in CinÚthique and Cahiers du CinÚma around Louis Althusser and the role and effects of ideology upon subjectivity, contributed to an explosion in the field of film studies, the reverberations of which are still being felt today.
Yet much of the impetus for what I have just mentioned began in the mid-sixties, at the peak of the Nouvelle Vague. Filmmakers were making films which challenged the tools of analysis available at that time. It was this particular conjuncture which led to an increasing dissatisfaction with the paradigms in use for the study of the medium. Those paradigms, when applied to film, tended to exclude the history of ideas which had given them their legitimacy and strength in the first place. Some of the paradigms were derived fom the study of literature and seemed to have little sense of the specificity of film, and little desire to develop arguments which might have distinguished film from other cultural productions. Of course, in retrospect that was an historically simplistic assessment because the dominance of certain paradigms needed, precisely, to be defined from within the debates which had generated them. The effort should have been to examine why certain forms of literary criticism, for example, were so attractive, and why it would not have been harmful to explore those attractions precisely from within the institutional settings which had produced them. The response to the use of literary models was to look for alternatives and too often those alternatives were proposed as fundamental breaks, grand epistemological shifts, and ironically, the pressure to achieve those shifts, the practice of intellectual debate and exchange, was foregrounded as a political activity.
Structuralism for example, was applied to the study of the cinema in part as a response to the lack of methodology in the study of film as literature. This is not to suggest that literary criticism was without its own methods, far from it, but that film didn't submit as easily to those methods as first thought. The dissatisfaction sprang from clear dissimilarities in the object of study (even though that was often disputed as well) but also from the sense that film played a different cultural role from literature, and that it would be important to specify how those differences operated, especially at the level of meaning. Structuralism was embraced because it suggested that culture, and in particular, film, could be studied at a synchronic level and that there were laws to which all cultural products adhered. The move from law to code and back was a significant part of the impulse to bring semiotics into the study of the cinema, but it begs the point to suggest that this was an intellectual shift and a politically important one at that. Structuralism had already transformed anthropology and it was the echoes of that transformation which were heard by people studying the cinema. Yet the debate around Claude LÚvi-Strauss' work was no sooner incorporated into film studies than it was abandoned. The question here, is not whether that was a good or bad move, but whether the impulse to take up the structuralist model was based on anything more than a desire to fill the obvious gaps which a methodologically impovrished discipline had discovered within its own realm.
In 1973 an important conference was held in Montreal. It was called Rencontres Internationales Pour Un Nouveau Cinema. Well over three hundred people attended. Many of them were filmmakers as well administrators, archivists, theoreticians, historians, and journalists. Organized by AndrÚ Paquet, a key figure in the Quebec film scene, the conference was marked by an extraordinarily intense debate around the future of film in a world increasingly dominated by television. In addition the participants were very concerned with maintaining and promoting the political characteristics of the independent film movement. Many of the discussions took place at a feverish pitch, with an intensity about which one might be properly nostalgic given the drift of the 1980's. I have brought up this example because of its political import and to suggest that the early years of discipline formation in the cinema were characterized by just such events, by for example the intensity of the invective which journals like CinÚthique threw at Cahiers du CinÚma and the former's extremely critical analyses of the work of Christian Metz.
It was in fact the question of 'film as language' which came to dominate the early phase of film studies and though the metaphor had been present in numerous books and articles before Metz's Film Language, it actually gained strength as a consequence of Metz's rather ambiguous assertion that film was not a language in the strict sense of the word, but more like a language system. The ambiguity cut into Metz's desire to create a more rigourous model for examining how the cinema produces meaning, but ironically he had merely entered, albeit tentatively, the rather murky waters of a longstanding debate in linguistics between synchronic and diachronic approaches to the study of language.1 The problem here is that the question of whether film is a language or like a language puts to the side the central but perhaps more important controversy of whether any experience of meaning, any context in which meaning is produced can ever be outside language systems. We think with language, we speak about what we see, we talk about what we dream, we write about what we experience and so on. Problems start when a particular model of language, in this case a structuralist model is used as if the contradictions which characterized its own construction need not be included in the transposition to another discipline. Anthony Wilden, in an analysis of Piaget's development of the concept of structure says the following, which I feel applies with even greater force to Metz:
I shall therefore concern myself with the representative metaphors within his text in order to demonstrate the epistemological foundations of the 'invisible' text immanent to the 'visible' text...the representative metaphor does not communicate to us only about the communication established in the theory. Such metaphors have a life of their own. Through their self-articulation in an implicit or invisible discourse, these metaphors come to captivate the writer, to the extent that everything he says may do no more than represent an essentially static ensemble of transformations of an original metaphoric set. The labels that he has (unconsciously) chosen for his universe of discourse may in effect exert such fatal fascinations on the writer, that in the end their self- articulation takes over from him. He no longer speaks his discourse; the discourse is speaking him." 2
Metz's mistake in using and being used by the structural model was a serious one and what underlay it was the presumption that a grand new system could be put in place to explain how the cinema works, an all-encompassing paradigm which would unify the 'field' into a totalized and totalizing theoretical discourse. He repudiated some of that in his later writing but then he repeated the mistake in his use of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Though a new and I think fertile field was opened up by the transposition of some of Lacan's main ideas, in particular the mirror phase, the same old problems arose again because Lacan's theory was just so powerful that Metz was forced to use it in a relatively uncritical way.3
To return for a moment to Cine-Tracts, I would repeat that it was journals and I need not enumerate all of them here which were not only the focus of acitvity during this early phase of discipline formation, but also of resistance to some of the more established models of enquiry into the cinema. And the question which comes to mind is why journals came to play such a large role in the development of ideas about the cinema. Clearly, journals facilitate and encourage the formation of communities of people with similar interests and desires. In the case of film studies journals were seen as political and transformative activities. This perception is something which we need to examine historically but inevitably journals become institutions if not institutionalized. The community delegates authority to the journal and as a result the journal also represents that authority. Often a gap appears - a gap between reader and journal, between community and journal - which actually puts the journal in a greater position of power than it deserves, a position which it has not come to through political work (Journals just could not publish if they were to be as actively involved in their own communities as they would like.) but as a result of processes of delegation which remove the journal from its base. The conferral of power through representation gives the journal an autonomy which inevitably leads to misrepresentations about its role and more specifically about its power.
As an example of this let me recount an anecdote which to me most fully expresses the way these contradictions work. Two friends of mine, well-known Canadian sociologists, were having lunch with a former member of the Screen editorial board in London. She told them about a recent conference which had been held in Bolognia devoted to the role and history of film magazines. At a plenary session an American speaker spoke at length about the need to avoid past mistakes, to create more popular and populist journals, to avoid in particular ever again the model put in place by Screen and Cine-Tracts. There is a wonderful irony to that plea since both journals grew out of the communities which they served and both journals could only publish what that community produced. But sometimes the gap between representation and authority is so large that the journal appears to be both more autonomous than it could ever be and less repesentative than it might prefer. Screen wielded extraordinary power because its community of readers not only actively subscribed to it but because it gathered around it a group of writers who were writing material which that community wanted to read. Make no mistake about it, more journals fail than succeed and their history cannot be isolated from the social and cultural forces which sustained them in the first place.
This leads me back to my earlier comments about Christian Metz. For all of the criticisms which have been made of Jacques Lacan and the way Metz used psychoanalysis (It is my own feeling that Metz took Lacan's call for a return to Freud a bit too seriously, underestimating as a result the rather rhetorical manner in which Lacan himself tried to 'return' and the clear irony of positing something like an original text to be found. The Imaginary Signifier moves rather arbitrarily between Lacan and Freud, a dangerous tactic given their many differences.) much has been accomplished as a result of the cross-fertilization. Most importantly, the spectator has been given a place in film studies while it has been notably excluded from many other disciplines. (For example the relationship between narrative and narrativity in film theory has come to play a significant role in thinking about viewing. In turn these theories have been applied to television and other 'popular' media.) If anything psychoanalysis has tended to prevent film studies from appropriating the far more superficial and theoretically weaker empirical work on audiences, from sociology, for example.
Psychoanalysis in any case is not as monolithic as Metz made it out to be but it is perhaps symptomatic of the problems which film as a discipline has experienced in the past and continues to experience in the present that psychoanalysis is addressed with a reverence that few in the field of psychoanalysis acutally have. I would further suggest that the use of psychoanalysis in film theory has only just begun to scratch the surface of the relationship and so I was startled by a recent article in Cinema Journal entitled "The Pornographic Image and the Practice of Film Theory," by Stephen Prince.4
The article proposes that what film studies needs is a more empirical approach both to the study of the spectator and to the study of the image. The author suggests content analysis as a possible alternative, content analysis in the tradition of what has appeared in sociological studies of the media and in communications studies of the broadcasting industry. Prince makes sweeping generalizations about the use of Freud in film studies. He responds in rather simplistic terms to Laura Mulvey's work and then collapses years of scholarship in film and psychoanalysis into a summary statement about the dominance of binary models in that work. He then says: "In formulating its models of communication, film studies has been highly selective: Lacanian psychoanalysis and Benvenistian linguistics have dominated the field. Unfortunately, these choices have been made with an apparent blindness to other fertile traditions."5 Prince then goes on to mention George Herbert Mead and Volosinov as two examples of scholars whose ideas have not been adequately used by film studies. Fortunately the 'discipline' can withstand these critiques quite easily because Volosinov, for example, has been extensively used by Metz and Paul Willemen among others who have also tapped into the work of Bakhtin, Propp and Todorov (e.g., Raymond Bellour). So what is Prince on about? The Society For Cinema Studies published this essay and they are a fairly representative organization of American academics who work in film studies. Yet it is perhaps not without consequence that Prince proposes empirical studies of the image as a way of realigning the field. The sub-text is that psychoanalysis must be marginalized.
He then suggests that psychoanalytical approaches to the viewer have suscribed to the ". . .bullet theory popular in the early decades of the century in the field of communications, which held that the mass media shot messages like bullets in their helpless audiences." 6 Surely, most surely it is the opposite. If any theoretical enterprise during both the structuralist and the post-structuralist era attempted to dispel and dilute the power of the "bullet" theory it was psychoanalysis. I don't want to dwell on this for too long but it strikes me that the appropriation of Freud and Lacan by film theory didn't happen as Prince seems to suggest, in a vacuum. Freud and Lacan were not so to speak 'imported' into the discipline because a few individuals thought them to be important. The selective use of their theories and I would stress the word selective, originated in the vexing and difficult problem of trying to understand the relationship between the screen and the viewer. The bullet theory has circulated through many disciplines and I suspect that its attraction is situated in the ease with which it seems to solve the complexities of discussing and theorizing spectatorship.
Psychoanalysis has the potential to provide us with some important insights into the experience of being a viewer and while this may be fraught with all of the inherent difficulties of what oftens tends to be a phenomenological approach, many of the key authors who use psychoanalysis have so far avoided that pitfall.7 In any case I would suggest that the viewer can be scrutinized in some depth if we are able to build on and account for, the complexity of conscious and unconscious relations and that can only be done at a theoretical level.
It is interesting to see how Prince struggles with his own suggestions for a more cognitive and empirical approach. He decided to test viewers in almost the same way as C.B.S. for example test markets its new shows prior to their release on television. He relied on "eye-witness" accounts to build an analysis of spectator response and by extrapolation to analyse the communicative effectiveness of the image. The problem is not only in the design of such a project but in the move from the empirical to the general. In other words what viewers say under limited test conditions then becomes a standard example of viewer response. For all of its universalizing tendencies at least psychoanalysis can claim not only the clinical experience but through that an intimate knowledge of the rather contradictory relationship between what 'subjects' say and what they mean. More often than not viewer testing leads right back to the needs and predilections of the testers and doesn't even guarantee what they desire most, a hit show, or in the case of Prince a paradigm shift in analyses of the spectator. However, what must be said here is that Prince's article represents the desires and aspirations of many researchers in the mass media. This is in part because the 'object'under examination, that fleeting wisp of light or electronics does not lend itself to analysis very easily which may point out why neo-formalism has taken such a strong hold on the discipline since it, so to speak, generates an object of study when the more fundamental question is, what object are we studying?
The rather ambiguous status of the object film, its ephemeral presence, has led many researchers in the field to examine images as if the gap between viewer and screen will somehow be crossed or bridged by a closer examination of the screen or in the case of neo- formalists in an examination of celluloid. To overcome the ambiguities of signification and communication in the cinema for example or on television, the tenuous link between screen and viewer has always been collapsed in favour of a reductive yet ideologically convenient realism. The paradoxes should by now be clear. The real, never outside of representation is not simply appropriated onto the screen. Representational processes cannot be reduced to an instance of the real within which they operate anyway. The distinction is one of level and not opposition.
For example, the many pictures and images which streamed out of Ethopia during the peak of its recent drought transformed the dying breaths of emaciated children into visual effect. The truth of those events is not in question here, but the fascination of western viewers is. And however painful it may be questions about visual effects have to be explored in precisely those instances when the screen appears to be the most realistic. For, if we are to talk about viewing we cannot divorce the fascination of the viewer with the 'death' of an other, nor can we separate this from the activity of voyeurism which necessarily encapsulates the very possibility of viewing itself. The 'other' in this instance is a child whose face tearfully reminds me of my own good fortune and so permits me to transcend the shock of her death, to evade a period of mourning, to live the nightmare as a dream. If I treat the face of that child as information (which underlies the notion that it is real) then I can take the message and do whatever I wish with it. This is exactly the convenience of realism because of its almost obsessive desire for truth, which in any case can be achieved by any number of representational strategies and need not be exclusively situated in the image per se.
The image is the weakest link in any exchange of ideas and yet the image sustains itself on the act of fascination which viewers bring to it. There is a sub-text to the images which have been coming out of Africa. No room here for anything but the stern male voice-over. Little leeway in the presentation of the image. Simply, and presumably at an innocent level, the bare face of hunger, suffering and death. The sub-text can be described as classically modern, as the installation of yet another, 'other' for western culture, but whereas in the past that other has been conveniently 'primitive' it is now even more conveniently helpless, powerless.
The progenitors of these images desire them to have an effect, to convince, persuade, transform. In a sense they are in a similar position to Prince. They invest, and have an extraordinary degree of confidence in the image, the message. But the image and the message are not one and the same. To signify is not necessarily to communicate. The collapse of the former into the latter creates an equivalence between the image and the viewer, precisely the problem of the "bullet" theory and one which the discipline of film studies must develop the tools to contradict.
To me, the activity of viewing a film is based on the imaginary, on the distance of the viewer from the apparatus, yet as we have seen the apparatus is often substituted for the viewer because it has the kind of objective existence which permits that shift, which so to speak rescues the image from its 'non-objectness'. The apparatus ends up standing in as it were for the spectator. This is often what allows the camera to be confused with the eye. The subjectification of the apparatus breaks down the distance between the technology and its users, but it also confirms the technology in its place as the creator of the experience of viewing. This subjectification can best be characterized as a projection - that is as a defensive reaction to the imagined power of the apparatus - a way of fending off the perceived or imagined effects of the apparatus upon the self. When the suggestion is made that the eye sees what the camera sees, sometimes less, sometimes more, the underlying aim is in fact to reenforce the denotative strength of the image, to downplay, if not eradicate the differences between the eye, the camera eye and the imaginary.
It is not unusual for the subject to be replaced by technology in film theory. The latter "speaks" a language which can be kept under control by sticking to a set of supposedly sovereign rules whose limitations are accepted as givens and which have transcended their creators. The 'subject' of course cannot exist outside of the conflicts of the symbolic and the imaginary, cannot but confront the inevitable frictions and cleavages which are produced by viewing, or in the face of those gaps repress, push away, deny their presence and influence.
Yet, the cinema in nearly all of its national manifestations, even in those moments most fully devoted to realism, cannot escape its implication as a vehicle for the imaginary (the question is, why should it?), as a promoter of displacement, as a technology which contributes to and accelerates the gap between vision and knowledge. These displacements are at the heart of what we might call a cinema without words, a cinema where signification and representation always exceed the efforts to constrain and enframe their production of meaning, where representations may not be directly linked to a specific content or reality.
The discipline of film studies faced with all of these contradictions, these disparities and differences has often retreated into a reductive functionalism most fully exemplified by the tendency to overvalue the photographic qualities of the image. The overvaluing of the photographic is not confined to analysts and critics, but also to filmmakers. The tendency as a result is to look for fixity in the image - for a fixing, a solidifying of meaning and effect. This naturally leads to an overemphasis on the referential power of the image and even where some concessions are made to representational processes, the re-presentation is explained in terms of verisimilitude. The best examples of this are of course formalist and neo-formalist studies of the image. Most importantly, what is at stake here is the very discourse which is used to explain the relationship between projection and experience. But that would have to be the topic for another essay.
To my mind, given the context which I have been describing psychoanalysis has a significant role to play in setting out the terrain within which debates about spectator and image could be explored. It is my view that psychoanalysis remains a radicalizing influence, albeit one with its own set of contradictions and ambiguities. It is precisely one of the tasks of psychoanalysis to question the links between seeing and knowing and as more and more images proliferate all around us the crucial question seems to be how do we account for their contradictory status, for their seemingly symbiotic link to fiction, combined with their powerful ability to conflate fiction and reality?
Films cannot be studied without a theory of viewing, cannot be studied outside the activity of viewing, even single frames need to be viewed. Yet that activity immediately reconstitutes and transforms the 'object' under examination, which suggests that the movement from viewing to discourse, that is the manner in which a viewing subject reconstitutes his or her experience will be found in the margins of the symbolic and the imaginary. Those margins will always exceed representation, the projections on the screen, always place the image in crisis, if not in doubt, rebounding as it were onto a viewer in crisis for whom the fiction of the image must be transformed into the real as a necessary prelude for analysis but for whom the real is never simply the image itself.
If images are not in a simple sense texts or photographs, if they are a hybrid of sound and meaning, with signifying properties which are at best ambiguous, then what are we studying? Maybe the time has come to renew a certain 'angst' about where we are heading - to take the lessons of the past two decades and reevaluate their impact upon the discipline of film studies. I think that it would be appropriate, as we remember Martin Walsh through these lectures from year to year, to return to the roots of film studies via a heightened sense of the political aims which once diffused the discipline, if only to reexamine the conceptual schemes which our pursuits have put in place and so to speak refashion the conceptual norms which our institutions have embraced.
1 The debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky highlights that conflict. See Language and Learning: The Debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky, edited by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Harvard University Press, 1980.
2 Anthony Wilden, System and Structure , (London: Tavistock Publications, 1972) pp. 304-305.
3 I would refer the reader to David Macey's recent book, Lacan in Contexts, Verso, 1988. Macey traces out the rather superficial way in which Lacan was appropriated by film studies. I would, however dispute his conclusion that this may have in fact invalidated the research which was produced as a consequence of the appropriation.
4 Stephen Prince, "The Pornographic Image and the Practice of Film Theory," Cinema Journal, 27, No. 2, (Winter, 1988).
5 Ibid., p. 30.
6 Ibid., p. 29. .
7 See Kaja Silverman's, The Acoustic Mirror as a particular and creative use of psychoanalysis in which the very terms of psychoanalytic theory are themselves rearranged.