Suggested Summer Reading for Jeffrey Sconce

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Auteur(s): 
Lapointe, Julien

 

 
 
 
I was very happy to hear Jeffrey Sconce on the so-called "form wars" of yesteryear, given that this was a topic I have examined in my own writing, in an essay I wrote for Martin last year on "The Philosophy of the Pigeonhole" (a lengthy, sustained attack on David Bordwell published in CinéAction in 1989, by one Andrew Britton -- according to Robin Wood, at least, the greatest film critic in the history of the English language).
 
I won't recap my argument here, not because modesty forbids, but rather due to the fact that the essay is some 40 pages long, and not amenable to a blog post! I want only to make a bibliographic recommendation to Sconce (if ever he is in need of some extra summer reading). The philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin, in his book 1972 Human Understanding, writes about disciplinarity in relationship to the production of knowledge, in a manner that I feel to be quite prescient to some of the research projects and intellectual aims professed by Bordwell and his colleagues in The Classical Hollywood Cinema (CHC). 
 
Very briefly, Toulmin identifies a discipline as a rational inquiry in which successive generations of thinkers seek to resolve what he terms a genealogy of problems. Meaning, that researchers and thinkers identify a specific intellectual problem or question they seek to answer, the answering of which provokes new questions and further inquiries, which are then taken up by their successors. This all sounds a little abstract, so I'll give an example. At the most elementary level, and I'll keep this risibly basic given my impoverished knowledge of science, you could say that Isaac Newton was investigating a specific problem or question -- what makes objects fall towards the earth? -- which called for an answer, regarding the laws operating within the natural world. One can imagine, however, that the answering of this question -- in one word: gravity (yes, I said I'd keep this risibly basic and even simple-minded) -- provokes a flurry of other questions: among them, are there any imaginable or known conditions under which the laws of gravity do not apply? (apart from what we can see on Bugs Bunny cartoons!). 
 
Thus, there is a degree of continuity and also culmination as to how knowledge is produced, such that one can determine specific research projects and intellectual inquiries which can be undertaken and pursued in the long range. This is certainly what Sconce was getting at, I would submit, when he talked about the hypothetical and conceivable end, in Bordwell's work (and Thompson's, and Staiger's) that in pursuing historical poetics one might one day say everything that needs be said about the cinema (i.e. from the perspective of historical poetics). All the research ground will have been covered, all the questions answered, all the problems in our genealogy solved (an implausible ideal, but one that is not strictly speaking impossible).
 
Despite my reference to Newton, Toulmin underscores that the hard sciences are not the only fields which might attain disciplinary status. As it happens, he actually addresses (in 1972) the issue of what a disciplinary study of the fine arts would look like.  It would involve, if I may paraphrase, not the study of select masterworks and how they stand out from the history of the medium, but rather the consideration of crafts and techniques, and how artists as laborers worked to hone their craft and pass along their skills, through guilds, studios, national schools and traditions to subsequent generations. The downside is that one doesn't simply study Mozart, say, as exemplifying a certain kind of artistic genius which far towers above all his peers (as an "auteur," one might say in film-speak); rather, one would anonymously cast him alongside the Salieris and other dozens of denizens of his day, simply putting into practice certain techniques and formal practices, which they all picked up from prior generations and passes along to the next round of composers: in short, "ordinary music," or the "typical film," which Bordwell announces he is to study at the start of CHC, independently of the vagaries of taste or even canon-formation.
 
I won't get into the pros and cons of such an approach -- I tried to do that in my paper already, and briefly revisited the theme in my response to Martin's lecture (i.e. "Lefebvre's and Carroll's Combative Dialectics").  But I think the issue of disciplinarity, as defined by Toulmin, is key, or, at least, a helpful supplement in trying to contextualise the intellectual aims of Bordwell and his colleagues, and perhaps what sets him so far apart from the post-structuralists, where, as Sconce helpfully reminds us, the aim is not to reach any attainable goal or end, much less to be understood. That might make interpretive criticism, in the words of Paisley Livingston, a "discontinuous and noncumulative jumble" -- an attack I have never found to be entirely fair, but one that resonated with me as Sconce talked about the sheer fun, sense of the style and perhaps utter pointlessness of post-structuralist era hermeneutics.
 
Finally, at the risk of insulting the Lacanians, in hearing Sconce and Carroll's disagreement on whether the post-structuralists mean what they say, I was reminded of the following quote:
 
"In the case of Lacan, for example -- it's going to sound unkind -- my frank opinion is that he was a conscious charlatan, and was playing games with the Paris intellectual community to see how much absurdity he could produce and still be taken seriously. I mean that literally. I knew him." Noam Chomsky (Radical Philosophy 53, p. 32).

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