Thursday, 7 October 2010

Theory canon

In About a Boy, Will (in the film played by Hugh Grant) had the good fortune of having a father who wrote a popular Christmas song, and Will has been able to live well ever since on the royalties of that song.

Sometimes in the world of film theory, there's occasionally something similar going on. Laura Mulvey wrote the essay Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema, Tom Gunning wrote the essay The Cinema of Attractions, Roland Barthes wrote (admittedly not in film theory, but it's still used there) The Death of the Author. And they're forever deeply connected with these essays, despite having written a lot of other things. These three examples are just a small sample. One thing about this is that what they wrote in those essays is not necessarily something that they later felt was really accurate, or something they had really thought through. I'm not saying that Tom Gunning is wishing his essay was removed from the market, he might still swear by it, but it's only reasonable that as you progress and expand as a scholar, you get new ideas and new impressions, and perhaps even feel that the essay you once wrote is today somewhat embarrassing.

Another such essay is François Truffaut's A Certain Tendency in French Cinema. Truffaut wrote it when he was 22 years old, and needed to make a name of himself, so he tried to be as provocative as possible, and not really writing what he actually believed, but rather what would get people's attention. And attention it got. And still gets. And it's basically just a young guy harassing two older scriptwriters, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, blaming them for what ills French cinema, and for making French cinema vulgar. Yet two years later Truffaut wrote a review saying that Aurenche and Bost were indispensable.

But still all the world's film students have to read these essays. There's a well established canon of film theoretical texts, even among scholars and departments that deplores the very idea of a film canon. There's something contradictory here.

And these texts are not only read, indiscriminately, but they are also quoted and references ad nauseum. Probably since they and their fellow canonical texts are the only texts people have read to any large extent, so not only do they know it themselves, but they also know that everyone else will know about it, so it's a safe thing to quote. I recently read an anthology about cinema and nation but when the fifth essay used the phrase "as Benedict Anderson argues in Imagined Communities" in the first paragraph I throw away the book in desperation. I've got nothing particular against Benedict Anderson but surely there's been something else written somewhere, at some point, on the subject. That book (Imagined Communities) is 27 years old, has nothing happens since then?

Robert Ray at University of Florida once wrote, in 1988 to be precise, that since everybody in film studies, from graduate level and onwards, are pushed to publish as much as possible "the inevitable happens: a catchy malleable idea like Lacan's 'mirror stage' suddenly crops up as the basis for hundreds of articles and conference papers, only to be replaced by a new fad, the race/class/gender template". (Reprinted in "How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies") When I studied Film History and Theory at Stockholm University in the 1990s I made a solemn promise not to quote Foucault in anything I wrote, since that was the only person everybody were quoting, or so it seemed at the time. Now I've mellowed a bit, and he is actually quoted in my thesis. But very briefly.

So what is the problem then? Well, it is that the study of film theory so often is monolithic and canonical, that many theoretical texts are read and re-read even though they either are well past their sell-by-date, or were bonkers to begin with, and that it so often happens that those that read the theoretical texts, be they essays or books, somehow becomes absorbed in this or that theory, and treat it as gospel. Whenever I happen to meet such a person I'm reminded of what John Maynard Keynes said after a meeting with some other economists: "I believe I was the only one in that room who wasn't a Keynesian."

A lot of the theoretical stuff also happens to be written by either French Marxists or by writers very much inspired by French Marxists, and occasionally psychoanalysis (i.e. Jacques Lacan). That is another conundrum (or spectre) which we can discuss some other time.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you on this. The principle danger of the trend/s you describe is of established and proliferated language which does not contribute to investigation and its goal, the distinct statement. I think it would help - cineastes but also scholars in general - to remember it is their own usage that brings these source texts to life; texts that may well contain passages that have since been disowned by their authors.