Brief Comment on Haidee Wasson's Blog Entry

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Lefebvre, Martin

Haidee Wasson’s blog entry states what I believe we, at ARTHEMIS, all think: history and theory need not be antagonistic. And when Mark Betz looked at “reading against the grain” — a notion that has informed much theory since the late 60s — historically, he showed that there is a lot to be gained by looking at theory historically. 

And, of course, it is not rare for disciplines to look at its concepts historically. The some extend the old history of ideas did just that as well. The real questions, however, are: what sort of historiography to adopt? And, even more important, to what end, for what purpose?

In the post-Foucaudian era history in the humanities has often meant a form of relativizing that has aligned itself with a "hermeneutics of suspicion", to recall a phrase Ricoeur often used. It is is this relativizing historiography that has often been critical of theory and theory’s tendency to universalize. As we know this can lead straight to a certain trivialization of theory (Jeffrey Sconce’s talk was a good illustration of this attitude). In fact, history here often adopts a sort of  “meta”-level stance: “you ‘theorists’ think this (or that) now, but this can’t be true since what you think is necessarily determined by the zeitgeist, and when it’s over you’ll be thinking something else… so don’t you get all hot and bothered about the theory…”. But here, of course, the historian is theorizing… Foucault, of course, was theorizing. One problem with Foucault (whose name was invoked a few times during the conference – but nowhere as much as in Jeffrey Sconce’s talk), is that he did not wish to offer a principle guiding the change from one episteme to the next. He was unwilling to do so. InThe Order of Things changes in episteme appear abritrary and involve discontinuity rather than continuity. And it is primarily this that led Foucault to his conception of "power". Indeed, when epistemic change appears arbitrary (“so and so is in the truth today, tomorrow it will be something else and the change from one to the other is arbitrary”), it opens itself to falling under the sway of power. So my question to Haidee Wasson is the following: what history(ies) doe we need – what conception of history and historiography? Certainly the mere accumulation of facts and dates is not sufficient.

 I don’t know the reasons behind the development of 16mm analytical projectors (I never claimed I did) – in fact, in my comment I made clear that I was quoting John Locke who, a few days before at FSAC, made the claim that they were developed for reviewing football games. I'm not a historian and have no formal training in historiography. I’m sure Haidee knows very well what she is talking about (she is, after all a specialist in the development of 16mm and a fine historian). But what are we to make of the fact that these projectors were developed instead for military use before opening up to other applications? Why does this matter for us who study films? What does this fact tell us – about the cinema, about the classroom, about film studies? And, more importantly -- in the eyes of the theoretician, at least -- what conception of historiography, what conceptual use of the past (seen from the present of history)  can best help us in finding answers to these questions?  If theory has a history, so does history and historiography. And historiography’s pretentions (to truth, to some part of the truth, to truth-aptness, to validity, etc.) are… well (for lack of a better word)… theoretical.


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