Jeffrey Sconce's talk: the formalism vs. culturalism debate, desire, beauty, ethics, perspectivism and ad hominem attacks

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Robbins, Papagena


I appreciated that Jeffrey Sconce brought our attention to the battle between formalism and culturalism in the 1980's, adding a piece to the puzzle of what the history of such debates might mean to the epistemology of film studies today. I must confess that having entered film studies late in my own studies, coming as I do from philosophy and cultural analysis, I am still struggling to understand these academic turf wars. Thus, I found it interesting to note, as Sconce pointed out, that what was at stake for culturalism in this agonistic battle was the dismantling of the critiques of positivism, which had been born out of such extreme forms of injustice as systematic discrimination, colonialism and genocide. The prize of commanding the vision, concerns and goals of a discipline is a hefty one. Not having been indoctrinated into the formalist school of film studies, I wonder what is at stake for its practitioners in sharing this vision with those for whom representation is not just a matter of interest, but at times, that of life and death. Ethics, indeed, does play a part in these various positions, and perhaps we should begin to speak of such things. (Yes, it sounds dramatic, but I do believe that the institutional nature of the academy gives the work done under its purview a certain ethical accountability that comes with the power to make pronouncements about the state of things in the world. How we frame our discussions about representation does have an effect on people’s lives, especially in an increasingly spectacle dependent world, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.)
When it comes to critical theory approaches to film studies, Sconce emphasizes their potential beauty (Bellour’s analysis of The Birds as a particularly striking example of what is so beloved about this style of close analysis), humor, and variety and proliferation of perspectives, one of which may just change the way we see everything. Out of these approaches also emerges, what Sconce seems to believe is the crux of the issue itself, the excitement of being open enough to the text that it just may reveal its secrets to you. The debate then seems to take on the issue of the desire of the film analyst: do we want theories that are capable of inspiring multiple views on our object, or do we want one that has been christened with the ability always to provide one sure interpretation, unfettered by the changing and various human contexts that surround it. I’m with you, Sconce. Give me multivalency over “truth” any day—Nietzsche’s perspectivism, if you will. Nietzsche advocated what he called “perspectivism” to bridge the gap between relativism and absolutism in the analysis of objects, because he reasoned that the idea that “objectivity” was a possible human mode of thought had more to do with the power to claim it than the specialized ability to effect it. And for this reason, I became confused and concerned when Sconce seemed to evoke Nietzsche as some hegemonic, fuddy duddy ghost in cahoots with Kittler’s distain for the new and the now. (He says something to the effect of, “While Kittler conjures Nietzschian ghosts of pen, paper, and experimental film, the students are awash in [transcultural multimedia]…” in order to make an example of how out of touch the old regime really is.) The way Sconce has evoked Nietzsche, as an example of the old regime, seems to characterize Nietzsche first and foremost as an old, outdated figure, rather than appreciating the agreement of thought they may have shared. This mis-characterization is unfortunate in an otherwise interesting argument that advocates artistry, desire and perspectivism in film theory and analysis (if I’m understanding his position correctly).
A quick last point about a comment made in the “Q and A” period of this talk. Just how does an ad hominem attack on post-structuralists and their “humorlessness” add anything productive to this discussion? I must be missing something here. Both Dr. Carroll and Dr. Sconce agreed that this group were the most flawed in this respect. Sconce framed the debate around “Protection against others stealing your style of scholarly pleasure,” which I believe is a factor, but an oversimplification of what is at stake, since I believe the stakes may be slightly higher, more political and less motivated purely by pleasure on one side than the other. Dr. Carroll names Mary Anne Doanne as a particular offender. I wonder whether or not the “humorlessness” referred to here might not have resulted from hostilities in the environment in which the subject was witnessed.


Papagena, thank you for your insightful and thorough review of the talk.  I think we're actually in more agreement than you might have initially imagined.

First, I am in no way denigrating Nietzsche (I would never have that kind of hubris I hope!).  Since my approach is primarily indebted to the historical/geneaological work of Foucault, I recognize that much of that approach has its roots in just what you isolate in Nietzsche's work.  Lacan rewrites Freud. Althusser rewrites Marx.  Foucault in many ways rewrites Nietzsche, and has always been the most useful in my own work. 

I was in a bit of a hurry toward the end of the paper, so I apologize if some of it got garbled.  My point was to address Kittler's pride in proclaiming he would be teaching a course on 20th-century audio-visual media but the actual media would not make any appearances in the class--unless of course it was silent or experimental film.  By saying he wants to conjure the "Nietzschian ghost of pen, paper, and ear,' I'm referring to a reference in "Optical Media" where he states he wants to recreate the exact pedagogical environment of Nietzcshe's era: students listening with the ear and occasionally putting pen to paper.  My point was how artificial and oddly conservative it is to enforce such a dated regime when teaching, as if he wants his students to return to the Discourse Network of 1900 to understand the media technologies and environment of our current era (He claims  it will give his students an "outsider" perspective to study Optical media without actually looking at any Optical media--I just disagree, and wanted to move on to the point that his students are probably wholly competent at balancing several media flows simultaneously).

I apologize also if the exchange between Professor Carroll and myself was more about insider gossip than actual intellectual debate.  But the remarks were not really directed at "post-structuralism" in all its guises, but rather at a very ascetic brand of psychoanalytic film theory (again, SLAB theory according to Bordwell) that was extremely influential in the '70s and '80s.  I said many Lacanians tended to be humorless, and this was more a joke (a cheap one admittedly) at the zeal with which they embrace and defend that paradigm.  Most other "schools" of French theory from that era were, if not necessarily compatible, at least in a type of dialogue or open for further development.  To be a Lacanian, however, is very often to accept something almost akin to a closed cosmology--complete and total in its theoretical perfection (its also why I'm such a fan of "Anti-Oedipus," which artfully seeks to challenge that paradigm).  Please know, I have immense respect for Mary Anne Doane's work and teach much of it in my seminars.  As far as psychoanalysis goes, I am often torn between awestruck "belief" in Freud's discovery of the unconscious and Foucault's rather trenchant dismantling of the Freudian project.  As for Professor Carroll's takes on all of this, I'll let him speak for himself!

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