Cinephilia, Theoretical Excess and Parsimony in Historiography

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Auteur(s): 
Burnett, Colin

Thank you to Matthew for his generous feedback in another post.  I'd like to reply to the claim that cinephilia is "missing" from my argument. 

 
 
 
Matthew judges that if "excess" is not part of an author's discussion of cinephilia, whatever that discussion is, then the author is faulty in calling the phenomenon under study "cinephilia."  In other words, the assumption is that "excess" is a necessary condition for identifying cinephilia and, indeed, any and all cinephilias.  I find this reasoning overly prescriptive in a number of ways. 
 
 
 
First, as a researcher, I am always leery of what might be termed theoretical excess.  This is when a theoretical model is adopted without due consideration for the ways the theory can block the theorized phenomenon from view in one respect or another.  Theory here becomes 'overgrown,' as it were, developing so many presuppositions and prescriptions and postulates as to asphyxiate the object it is meant to explain or describe or clarify.  
 
 
 
During his talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in mid April, cultural studies scholar David Morley reminded those in attendance that theorizing involves ethical decision-making.  In developing a theory, one must weigh what is gained in terms of understanding through one's theoretical generalization against what is lost in terms of nuance in the particulars under scrutiny.  Is the theory worth it?  
 
 
 
If I theorize that all movies require actors, then my theory is lacking, for it fails to consider salient counter-examples-- i.e., movies for which this does not apply.  Persisting with the idea that all movies must have actors would do violence to the phenomenon I set out to explain and describe because my theory results in a relatively substantial loss of nuance.  Thus, in developing a theory about the medium specificity of movies, one must simultaneously perform a theoretical cost-benefit analysis.
 
 
 
My point is that the theoretical identification of cinephilia with excess has developed momentum, perhaps now itself becoming excessive and overgrown, in the hands of some (like Matthew) not facilitating further research into the varieties of cinephilia but rather impeding it.  This theoretical generalization needs some trimming.  Specifically, we need to acknowledge that while the 'cinephilia qua excess' model explains or describes many or even most instantiations of cinephilic culture, it may not be powerful enough as a theory to cover all such cultures.  The theory becomes a hinderance if some cultures or communities self-identify as cinephiliac, but align themselves to different sets of values and operations.  Such cases suggest that we need not a theoretical defense of the necessary and sufficient conditions for confirming a culture's cinephiliac status, but a cluster analysis of the various usages of the term "cinephilia" and their overlapping and even incompatible senses.    
 
 
 
Now, that's a point about the limits and ethics of theorization.  I think it remains an open question whether all cinephilias can be defined through the concept of excess.  We need to keep an eye out for cinephilias that do not bear this out.  Part of the ethics of theorization involves the obligation of considering what a 'non-excess' cinephilia would look like.  That's the burden one faces in accepting any theory: one must develop litmus tests for exceptions and be aware of how these exceptions might challenge the core tenets of the theory.  Unlike Martin Lefebvre, I do believe that film theories need to be falsifiable, or at least, we need to aim to make them that.  If only because this kind of thinking about theories encourages us to be aware of counter-examples which may or may not require a revised theory.
 
 
 
We also need to keep an eye out for banality, here.  Matthew seems to recommend that I needed to give a nod to cinephilia as exhibiting a certain quality in its engagement with movies.  But what would this add in my argument?  Some scholars, like myself, prefer to conduct inquiries according to research questions.  My research question was plainly stated: where does this precompositional commitment in Bresson come from? Claiming that Leenhardt's writing shows excess, or that the debate between Bazin and Sadoul shows excess, or that this proliferation of writings on the avant-garde or rhythm shows a postwar French kind of excess, would at best be banal and at worst superfluous and even distracting to the task at hand.  
 
 
 
The principle of Ockham's razor states that one should not multiply entities beyond necessity when accounting for a phenomenon.  An explicit theory of cinephilia qua excess would not lead to a different answer to my research question, so I feel justified in shaving it off, as it were.  My findings would remain exactly as they are with or without this theory.  Given my research question, I therefore have the luxury of being agnostic about the role of excess in cinephilic culture.  De Baecque's framing of cinephilia, on the other hand, as a way of looking at and writing about movies to the extent that cinephiles seek engagement with filmmakers, is just what I need to answer the question of Bresson's style (in terms of his relationship with a sub-community of cinephilic critics).  
 
 
 
When Noel Carroll responded to Martin's paper, he stated that psychoanalytic film theory should be rejected on the grounds of explanatory parsimony.  The simplest explanation is usually the best explanation, and psychoanalysis doesn't cut the mustard because it creates a large apparatus to explain human psychology vis-a-vis film spectatorship when simpler explanations are available.  (Martin did not respond to this, and should.)  The best response I've heard to the principle of parsimony in explanation or to Ockham's razor is Einstein's: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."  As I understand it, the idea is that some things (in this case, explanations) demand a certain level of complexity, so there is no absolute standard of simplicity.  Perhaps Matthew would respond by saying that 'cinephilia qua excess' IS simple, and as simple as it needs to be to account for a certain kind of spectatorship.  And he may be right.  But the goal posts shift when cinephilia is not a theoretical object one is trying to understand, but only one term in the historical study of an entirely different object.  Our theoretical constructs should not shut down historical possibilities.  In historical accounts that take cinephilia as a proximate mechanism, one retains this idea of excess only to the extent that it's a pertinent factor in the question one seeks to answer.  In such cases, 'cinephilia qua excess' is perhaps more complicated than it needs to be.

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