Lefebvre’s and Carroll’s Combative Dialectics

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Auteur(s): 
Lapointe, Julien

 

Mea culpa: the somewhat sensationalist title is more to grab your attention than express, with any accuracy, the content (or intent) of my post.
 
All gratuitousness aside, I was eager and even enthusiastic at the prospect of hearing Martin’s talk – particularly because I and my fellow doctorates have been privy to the seeds, as it were, of his thinking on the epistemological status of knowledge-claims and other assertions made in the name of film scholarship. Some of these issues I tried to address and resolve in a near 40-page paper I wrote for his pro-seminar on the topic with only partial success. So below, I can only offer a few tenuous questions and perhaps a modicum of skepticism, rather than any effective counter-argument (or endorsement).
 
I perhaps disagree with Martin’s account of “hermeneutics” in Figures Traced in Light – or, rather, feel this to be a straw-man argument that does not exactly square with Bordwell’s professed skepticism of interpretation. In Making Meaning, Bordwell seeks to establish different types of meaning which one can perceive or apprehend in a given film -- the referential, the explicit, the implicit and the symptomatic -- and then determine which types of meaning operate or are at work in various types of film scholarship (I'm sure Martin doesn't need to be reminded of this, and I apologize to others if I appear to be restating the obvious). Interpretation almost always involves deciphering the implicit or symptomatic meaning of a film, whereas formalist analysis, the kind Martin mentions in the problem-solution model employed in Bordwell, relies almost exclusively on the explicit and the referential. 
 
The problem is not that there is anything necessarily wrong with interpretation, far from it; the issue at stake, rather, is how do we ascertain or categorize the kind of knowledge produced in interpretation. While I bow to Martin's reservations regarding falsification, both as a means of assessing the truthfulness of statements in the hard sciences and its applicability to the domain of aesthetics, the fact remains that an interpretation of a given film (an argument regarding its implicit or symptomatic meaning) provides one with only very little sustainable insight that can be parlayed into a long-term research project. Critics may reach a consensus as to what constitutes a valid interpretation or not a given film (e.g. to cite one debate had at FiSAC: is The Hurt Locker a pro-war or anti-war film?). Ultimately the grounds on which these critics might base their claims may shift -- the culture, the norms, the society -- and not only might their insights seem myopic with time; even worse, they risk becoming besides the point. This is not a relativizing argument, but only to highlight that what is at stake in assessing the implicit or symptomatic meaning might not be of any higher value than a provisional consensus that develops at any given time. And such a consensus cannot necessarily guarantee any further research programs or theoretical understanding into the nature of art. I've often had this sense reading interpretive studies of films produced decades ago -- not that the interpretation was "false" (no such criteria exists for assessing an interpretation), but that its intellectual concerns were simply retrograde.
 
Of course any formalist analysis can soon come to seem dated and passé. But this is not what is at stake -- or not solely what is at stake in historical poetics. To a large extent, the knowledge produced by historical poetics is, if not falsifiable, then empirically verifiable. Rather than debating the covert or conflicting ideologies of a film, about which we might disagree about ad nauseam without ever reaching a valid conclusion, we examine, say, the types of shots which occur in the film, and their function within the narrative (to the extent that we are discussing narrative cinema -- which Bordwell does in Figures). This requires a degree of comprehension and even hermeneutics, but dwelling on this is a non-sequitur. What matters is that, if Bordwell for example, makes a claim as to the ASL or staging in de Feuillade, it can be verified for a relative degree of accuracy (e.g. if someone could show that Bordwell got the ASL of a group of films wrong, he might have to revise some of his scholarship -- though I pity the poor soul who would have to double-check the ASL of every film Bordwell has ever written about). The same, needless to say, cannot be said for any number of symptomatic interpretations, where it is more a matter of who is the better rhetorician, or the more argumentatively gifted. 
 
This leads to a number of considerations. One is that, because it is empirically verifiable, historical poetics is better suited to long-term research projects, and can be better correlated to explanatory ideals -- it better qualifies as a discipline in the Toulminian sense. A statement is made, it can be verified to be true or not, and we move on to another, related question (e.g. we examine the ASL of 1910s silent cinema, which leads to considering similar questions in 1920s silent cinema). No comparable research project, in any coherent sense, is forthcoming if I describe Les vampires as an allegory for anarchy, or modernity, or anything of the sort.
 
Secondly, I am not sure I grasp Martin's account of Peirce's notion of the rational, as that which is apt to attract feelings and habits. Not being an expert on Peirce, or even remotely acquainted with his writing, I hesitate to plunge into uncharted waters -- and yet, I cannot see how this defends one from the risk of sophistry (or pseudo-logic). I perhaps allude to this earlier on, in saying that interpretive criticism, what finally matters is who is the more rhetorically inclined (or, apt to attract followers). It can make for very lofty prose, but I would ask on what basis we can then decide whether a statement has any validity or not.
 
Finally, I thank Martin for his talk and the opportunity to participate on the ARTHEMIS forum. I would have more to say but, regrettably, as it is always the case with these things, my lunch hour is over and it's time for the next speaker. And I'm sure by tonight that Martin (and everyone else) will have had ample opportunity to demolish every argument I have just made. 

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