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.