Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1 No. 2, 1987
Film, TV and the Popular
Edited by Philip Bell & Kari Hanet

Film Theory Re-Assessed

Dana Polan

In proceeding to talk about a field like Film Theory, I feel myself in the curious situation of visiting lecturer Philip Swallow in David Lodge's academia novel, Small World, when his invitation gets garbled by the telex and instead of a paper on Literature and History, or Literature and Society, or Literature and Philosophy and so on, his assignment appears to be that of talking on Literature and History and Society and Philosophy and Psychology. The term film theory today can only be a convenient fiction, holding a number of approaches in a complicated space. If classic film theory might seem to have offered the ease of allowing itself to be divided into realist and formative traditions, as per Dudley Andrew in The Major Film Theories and if the theory of what Colin MacCabe in Tracking the Signifier calls the "Class of 68" could be articulated around the three poles of signification, production, and desire, theory today has gone beyond even these areas to open up onto a whole field of new questions. What I want to do is suggest some trends and tendencies of recent years; one thing I can perhaps offer is some sense of current American and French work - work that frequently exists only in dissertations or essays in progress.

I will want to argue that, to be most useful, film theory should cease to exist as such. The ambiguity, of course, comes from the 'as such'. Film theory can only move by ceasing to be a theory of film - of film as an object to be fixed in its essence, its specificity. While any summing up risks being a reification of its own, I would say that the deconstruction of essence and specificity characterizes the most interesting recent work in film study. We can see one symptom of the shifts in theory in the very title of a film theory anthology at the beginning of the 1980s, The Cinematic Apparatus, edited by Stephen Heath and Teresa de Lauretis. The cinema here is no longer an object that one is after, as in that classic question, "What is cinema?"; quite the contrary, cinema is now an adjective, a modification of something else, something that in the case of this anthology is a non-fixity, the apparatus as that instable intersection of ideology, technology, desire, and so on.

I sandwich my comments in this presentation between two anecdotes that will hopefully take on symptomatic power - two stories of early writers' encounter with the world of film. The first might appear to have a certain antiquarian triviality to it: in 1923, a New York journalist, Edward Van Zile, writes one of those books so common at the time on the affective power of the new art of cinema and its implications for modernity. Indeed, an interest of the book, entitled That Marvel: the Movie, is precisely the way it fits with banal regularity into public discourse of the time. Van Zile's book shares with other writings an intense, if intuitive, notion of what film is - namely, an art that vibrantly links education and entertainment, that cuts through national and social boundaries to create what he calls an "Esperanto of the Eye". There is also, though, a conception of what a language on this art must be like; Van Zile seems to assume that a marvelous, educational art requires a marvelous, educational discourse that would be in transparent adequacy to its object. This meeting of object and discourse perhaps explains what seems the sheer eccentricity of Van Zile's claims for cinema: "Had Wilson, Lloyd George, [etc.] been obliged . . . at the peace conference to spend several hours . . . in front of a screen upon which was depicted . . . the immediate tragic past . . . their deliberations might have been of greater value. . . . Had the Esperanto of the Eye been adopted as the official language at Versailles could not the Conference have avoided a repetition of the errors that crept into its verdicts?"

That Van Zile was earlier a science fiction writer might seem the appropriate explanatory fact here. But another, more immediate fact suggests that Van Zile's ode to cinema was not so fanciful: the book is prefaced by Will Hays, who had begun the Hays Office a year before and who was interested in works that would justify film and, moreover, would justify it in an international market. If Van Zile began as imaginative writer, his later vocation as speech writer for the Republican party was extremely lucrative; his book well fits its time by mapping an aesthetics onto a politics: Van Zile calls for a "a world university" of film in which there would be revealed to "pilgrim students flocking to our lighthouse . . . aspects of history, to the end that they may return to their native lands and. . . problems seemingly insoluble . . . will be solved through a mass enlightenment that, before the advent of the screen, was beyond the wildest dreams of the most optimistic visionaries." Not unpredictably, Van Zile goes on to claim that "[T]here is but one country today available for the project . . . the United States. . . the only land in which this Lighthouse of the Past, this university of universities, could stand a fair chance."

No doubt, such arguments can seem to us the curiosities of an age we have well left behind. And yet, I would want to suggest that all too often our theory remains in the same mode: a wonder at an essential power of film - film in the aura of art, as a recent book refers to it; a faith in the capturing powers of a critical discourse; a normalization of a social investment in a particular mode of cinema. The distance is not so great from Van Zile to Stanley Cavell (in Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage) with his faith that his Massachusetts philosophizing can explain how screwball comedy is to be valued as the realization of the great dream of the New England Transcendentalists. For Cavell and Van Zile, film means and theory reflects that meaning while film and theory join up in comic celebration of American power. All this is eminently the gesture of the theorist as that term classically came down to us and as it still bears its impact on our work. As Wlad Godzich explains, in a preface to a book by Paul de Man entitled, The Resistance to Theory, "The Greeks designated certain individuals ... to act ... in matters of considerable political importance. These individuals ... constituted a theoria ... summoned ... to attest the occurrence of some event ... and to then verbally certify its having taken place. ... The individual citizen [was] capable of aesthesis, that is perception, but these perceptions had no social standing ... Only the theoretically attested event could be treated as a fact. ... The structure of the functioning of the Greek theoria ...: between the event and its entry into public discourse, there is a mediating instance invested with undeniable authority by the polity."

So much of the problem of evolving a film theory has come from its being caught in the models that characterize theory as authoritative speaking. Indeed, it seems not coincidental that in the moment of a pragmatic Reaganism, a pragmatic Thatcherism, we get an attack on a notion of theory as historical production, as difference, and a call for a return to commonsensical reflection of a primal message of the artistic work: hence, Critical Inquiry can publish an essay entitled "Against Method," one of whose authors (Walter Benn Michaels) presents Peircean pragmatics as an alternative to the excesses of new theory; hence, too, the way in which Dudley Andrew in an issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination on "Contemporary Methods in Film Scholarship" can assimilate film study back to a tradition of hermeneutics as "accommodation ... of the desires of the individual soul to that most formidable institution of all, the Bible. Just as the Bible can be taken as making a call on each subject, so also ... can the past, especially when the past addresses us through ... artistic self-representations."

Underlying classic theories is what I would call a 'liberalist' conception of meaning: in this conception, there is an ultimate truth, and divergence from truth is only a temporary affair that open and clear discourse, can restore. Communication occurs in a potentially free space where everyone can ultimately have access to paths of transmission and reception. But such a conception can only inevitably ignore the connections of signification and power - the ways in which a communication always takes place in a specific field of authorised possibilities.

All too often, however, the analysis of institutional controls of meaning production leads to a kind of conspiracy theory which ends in a notion of art as pure ideological tool. There is erected a politics of the 'quantitative' - who has more, who has less access to the channels of culture. For example, against a whole range of contemporary theorisations of domination as connected up to desire, to the circulation of meanings within ideological practice, we can find Kristin Thompson in Exporting Entertainment, saying the following, "What do I mean by calling American cinema 'dominant' in any given country? I am primarily interested in the degree to which audiences were seeing American films as opposed to other films." No doubt, access is part of the question of cinema, but a quantitative approach begs the question of the appeal of quantity: what in the films, what in their very textuality supports a quantitative dominance? How do the films operate, in what contexts of reception do they make their meaning? Revealingly, so much institutional analysis qualifies itself as a theory of mass media and not mass culture; it is precisely a notion of the art as a medium for something else - in this case, a dominance of screen time - that often is being appealed to. If, as Raymond Williams suggests, culture describes a structure in which residual and emergent forces clash, media theory and cultural theory can only be mutually exclusive with culture theory for it is precisely a notion of contradiction - within texts, between texts, between texts and institutions - that media theory has to exclude.

The potentially reductive effects of a media theory of culture show up for me quite directly in the work of Edward Said who is increasingly coming to stand for us as one of the cultural theorists most able to resist a religious hermeneutics for an approach that would tie texts to particular powers. Said's work on the constitution of Otherness has become a point of reference for anyone concerned with the ways dominant language works to empower certain discursive or existential possibilities while disabling others. But in books like Covering Islam and, to a lesser degree, Orientalism or After the Last Sky, Said tends toward a functionalist notion of power's operations. Dominant power is in place, and its discourses function unambiguously and in pure effectivity to maintain this power.

The title of Said's The World, The Text, and The Critic is significant in this respect for while it might seem a simple juxtaposition of three elements in the practice of literary criticism, it is possible to read it as a narrative of language's errancy and then restoration by the radical hermeneut. There is first and foremost the world, the site of essential being and psychical investment (intensified by Said's Lukacsian call for filiation in a modern age of homelessness). Language, then, comes in to enact a fall from being, a replacement of the essential by the mediate. In the best cases - that of canonic writers or critics of essential being - the language's intrusion is an improvement of the world by the Word. But, in the worst of cases - which, for Said, means mass media - the world is degraded, betrayed, distorted by language, turned into a mere simulacrum of itself. The critic, then, will be that special figure - between culture and system, as Said puts it - who sets language right (not unexpectedly, Said can write essays on the Middle East with optimistic titles like "Ending Ambiguity" - optimistic about criticism itself a tool that cuts through to the truth).

It is interesting, then, to think about terms that don't make it into Said's title. Most important for my argument here, there is no mention of the reader and his/her place in the process of meaning. This may seem a minor point - one can't expect a title to do everything - but it has a relation, I think, to Said's particular way of conceiving culture. Said institutes a sharp split between the trained critic, given all hermeneutic responsibility (and here his admiration for Auerbach is well known) and the ordinary reader, relegated to a silent position of unimportance. Significantly, though, this split feeds back into Said's media theory in which the media message is passively absorbed, a mythifying weightiness. There is no room here for the analysis of contradictions in culture, a search for productive tensions. Certainly, opposition can come from outside - Said gives attention to Arab writers who write creatively against the West - but it is generally the Intellectual (incarnated in the polyglot Said) who is represented as having the greatest chance for moving out of positions promoted by dominant cultural apparati. In such an approach, it is all too easy to assume that mass culture is the enemy, a directly functional tool of dominance. But the consequence of this view is frequently self-willed marginalization of the critic, a desperate attempt to enact a negative dialectic (as in Adorno) where one fights dismally to avoid being part of the everyday operations of meaning.

In recent years, however, numerous theorists have begun to retheorize mass culture as an active renegotiation of cultural meanings. In these approaches, mass culture is not a form univocally imposed from on high by a culture industry. Instead, it becomes the place in which the industry's meanings interact - sometimes in vibrant clashes - with the values of an everyday life that often goes beyond the industry's proffered messages.

There is no doubt a danger in this approach: that of assuming that everyday life is an innocence that the culture industry comes in to take over and ruin. One only has to read Richard Hoggart's odes to eating fish 'n chips to realize the degree to which theory of everyday life can easily turn into a nostalgic longing for a mythic life. This approach can only ignore forces of history - the powers that make a mythology of nostalgia - and it is a dangerously small step from invocations of an essential everyday life to the ideology of a Fascism with its invocations of a pure glory of Land and Nature.

However, the best of the cultural studies look at the workings of everyday life without nostalgia for some time that would exist magically outside of the effects of dominant culture.

Two premises underlie the new discourses on film: first, that films perform, and second, that theories read.

Films perform. Or, to refer to one of the new fields of analysis - speech-act theory - films are "performative." To be sure, but for the work of Daniel Dayan and a few others, speech-act theory has not had impact on film study; indeed, much in this theory, such as its pre-emptory division of felicitous and infelicitous discourse, could only be a normative reduction of the work of films. Yet, that meaning occurs not as a process of natural reference but as the interaction of text with a whole series of empowering contexts seems inescapable for new film study. Films perform, and each performance requires the presence of a series of supportive institutions.

We can see the effects of a performative notion of film in the movement of a film narratology from the period of Metz. Already, in its initial formulation, the grand syntagmatique showed points of tension in which segmentation could only be decided on the basis of one's decision as to what causalities were at work in a film: such questions still show up in such debates as that over the narrativity of Porter's Life of an American Fireman - has its narrative discovered alternation or not? - or of The Great Train Robbery, where it is equally possible to see the film as chronological or as including an early use of flashback. It seems appropriate that early cinema - in which many codes are only ambiguously in place - has become a most vibrant area for the mix of theory and history. To be sure, some scholars of early cinema fall for a fetish of the historical fact, not realizing that their own approach bears a theory of its own - as in virulent anti-theorist Barry Salt's recourse to a concept of authorial intention in his book on film style (Film Style and Technology). But there is a whole exciting range of work that reads early cinema as a way to interrogate narrative models. Out of all this work, I will just mention AndrŽ Gaudreault's work (in the French journal, Film Echange) on patents lawsuits which shows how the suits - on such questions as to whether or not a shot or a frame is the minimal film unit - constitute implicit theories of film texts. Gaudreault shows how the movement toward the codification of film style in early cinema was an active movement of debate and virulent conflict, rather than the natural working out of an aesthetic destiny.

If cinesemiotics in the late 1960s and early 1970s was frequently hampered by a scientism, concepts like 'suture' or 'enunciation' seem in more recent years to have promised a move beyond a description of segments to an analysis of the spectator's movement through segments. All too often, however, this seeming expansion of the narrative model remained as essentialist. To say that what the spectator does is to follow moves necessitated by the moves of film form is to really not theorize the spectator at all but to formalize the spectator; it is to remain in what Lesley Stern has called the "blind spot" of point-of-view studies. We might say that the narrative theory of the mid-70s was a Hegelian solution to objectivism. Hegel overcomes romantic and Kantian faith in a priori and instantaneous intuitions by displacing the fullness of meaning to a later and essential stage after 'alienation'. In a similar way, psychoanalytic narratology of suture and enunciation often re-enclose the movement of the subject in a fixity, an inevitable sense of the ending. And I don't want to suggest that such formalism occurs only in the psychoanalytic approaches of the 1970s. For example, for all his critique of theory, Robin Wood's approach to ideology in films from Viet Nam to Reagan seems to me no less formalist in its sense of essential contradictions - for example, the contradiction of heterosexuality by bisexuality - that a spectator unambiguously intuits; Wood's essential inspiration seems the Eliotic notion of text as objective correlative between producer and receiver, and this leads Wood to a politics that can unambiguously put this or that horror film or director in the camp of reactionary or progressive.

A number of strategies promise to get around the formalisms of such essentialist approaches. First, a rethinking of psychoanalysis itself as an examination of the variability of effects - most important, for example, has been attention to the variabilities of sexual difference in spectatorship (as in Laura Mulvey's re-thinking of "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in her essay on Duel in the Sun in Framework). Here, the effect of cinema is not singular or automatic but relative to the historical and psycho-social context of the spectator. Within psychoanalytic approaches to film, there has also been an attempt to rework psychoanalytic categories to give them less of a formal objectivity: to take one example, Mary Ann Doane's doctoral thesis (The Dialogical Text: Film Irony and the Spectator [1979]) is readable as a deconstruction of a hierarchization of primary over secondary process; against, say, Metz who would see a primary, inescapable effect of cinema in its constitution of a transcendental signifier before the institution of any particular imagery, Doane argues that particular narratives can ironically call into question transcendence from the start. For Doane, the cinema is in some cases imaginary, but in other cases, an ironic dismantling of the Imaginary.

But if there has been a questioning of method - of the precepts of a certain psychoanalysis, for example - there has also been a rethinking of the very notion of a nature of film. Here, I will only mention two of these forms of rethinking: first, increased attention to the soundtrack. The burst of studies on sound leads not to new essentializing - film as in essence a given blend of sound and image - but to an active displacement of essences. Selecting certain films, reading particular institutional discourses (as in Rick Altman's work on ideologies of the microphone, published in the French journal, Iris), the new theorists of sound tactically understand sound as a force with ideologically variable interactions with the image; perhaps most promising in this respect is Kaja Silverman's work-in-progress on ways the imaged body and the diegeticized voice try to control an errancy of the feminine in narrative film.

Second, there has been a certain effort to break away from a narrative theory of film, even of the fiction film, to suggest that film might be narrativistic not in essence but only in particular constellations. Against that notion of ideology that leads Fredric Jameson in the Political Unconscious to argue that narrative is the "central function . . . of the human mind", we find a range of scholars who look at an ideology of non-narrativized affect - for example, Ed Lowry on the enunciation of fright in horror films, Stuart Cunningham on the vibrancy of clichŽ and color in melodrama, Richard de Cordova and Lea Jacobs on acting as semiotic practice. In much of my own work, I have tried to displace study of the fiction film from narrative to spectacle: as I say in an article on "Cinema and the Ideology of Spectacle" (published in Tania Modleski's anthology, Studies in Entertainment):

Spectacle is not the same as, or reducible to, specific visual strategies such as illusionism or realism. . . . Spectacle demands our attention - a command to 'look here' that needs no cognitive assent other than the initial fact of looking. The specific content of a spectacle is only a very small part of its attraction. Rather, the very fact of showing ( . . . ) becomes a spectacle ( . . . ) in the ways it blocks, ignores, shuts out, other forms of cognition. . . .Spectacle offers an imagistic surface of the world as a strategy of containment against any depth of involvement with that world.

Generally, I would suggest that nothing so much characterizes film theory in the last decade than a switch from the search for the meaning of film in its essences to a search for the meaning of film in its histories. There are no doubt numerous reasons, large and small, for this shift: in part, it seems to me that the French theory of the 1970s generated a questions about film meaning that one could only answer by a turn to history. There seems indeed to be certain blockages in the theory: once one agrees that film constitutes an imaginary signifier (Metz) or that narrative replays the male Oedipal trajectory (Bellour) or, more recently, that narrative film has an underlying Chomskian deep-structure (Michel Colin), there is little else to do but either confirm such theories or propose counter-examples. It seems to me not coincidental that most of the French film theorists themselves are currently working outside of film - Metz on Freud and on photography, Bellour on Dumas, Jacques Aumont on painting, Colin on sports documentary, Kuntzel in video-production of his own. As revelatory is a new journal, Hors Cadre, edited by Marie-Claire Ropars and others, in which film is used not as an object of study but as a floating force used to interrogate the concerns of other disciplines. My own guess is that we will increasingly witness a shift of the center of film theory from a French context to an Anglo-American one, focussed on historicizing theory, a new context that will see French theory as a necessary step, but as no more than that.

If theory and history have long been compartmentalized specialties, we are witnessing a new writing of history that is all too aware of theoretical implications. Even so-called primary work - the writing out of uncharted areas of film - is done to make theoretical points about, for example, the variabilities of film form and tropes (for example, Maureen Turim's forthcoming book on the flashback) or to intervene in general debates about the relation of state to culture (for example, Michael Renov's work on government agencies and the representation of women in wartime films). The move toward history seems so much a part of the current impulse of film that work that sets out to be essentialist finds itself caught up by an historicizing impulse: this seems, for example, the case with Gilles Deleuze's Image-Movement which, despite its repeated disavowal that it does not offer history and despite its fascination for laying out an essential affectivity of film through a terminology from Peircean semiotics, ends up nothing so much as a projection of affect onto historical movement. For Deleuze, if there is an essential vocation of film, this vocation is no fait accompli but a vulnerable force that must battle against all the territorialisations that constrain film, at least up to the postwar moment, to narrate actions and not play with forces of time and movement.

Deleuze's history is, of course, still essentialist: an ideal movement of an energy constantly in danger of debasement. Significantly, the best work in recent history has refused the very model of history as recovery of an essential depth to argue instead that history is the movement of one array of institutional forces after another. One direction has been to look at the discourses that surround films at different moments: here, one might cite Barbara Klinger's dissertation (Cinema and Social Process [1985]) on the way academic, industrial, and public reading formations constitute different versions of Written on the Wind; or Lea Jacob's dissertation on the Hays Office and its active effect on the reformulation of narrative structure and enunciation (Reforming the Fallen Woman Cycle [1986]). Such studies, I suggest, avoid problems of empirical specifications of audience response; not interested in "real" response, these studies say that all we can and should specify is that certain groups left certain discourses about film: what we need to do is not interpret these discourses but, rather, describe their operations, see what image of film they construct, what image they disavow.

The call for a new history has also meant a historicizing of psychoanalysis and a psychoanalyzing of history. Two areas seem particularly promising here. On the one hand, we are seeing a rethinking of auteurism away from the director as origin to that of the director as a position split in itself and simultaneously displaced within the discourses of production and reception. The rethinking of the director is just beginning - we see marks of it in the linking of enunciative style to a regularity of sexual representation in Raymond Bellour on Hitchcock or the reading of Hitchcock narratives for sexual ambiguity in Tania Modleski's forthcoming book on Hitchcock. One whole area that I see as highly promising is the mediating of institutional analysis with the kind of existential biography that Sartre proposes. Already, we can see faint signs of this approach in a still fairly traditional book like Vance Kepley's on Dovzhenko which moves from a romantic Dovzhenko to a Dovzhenko seen as a singular replaying of his culture. If traditional psychobiography essentializes meaning in a few fixed psychological complexes, Sartre's work, in a study like the three volumes of the L'Idiot de la famille, suggests a way to look at the particularities of a life while seeing all that particularity as a performing of tensions and contradictions of a whole social mode of production.

Another direction has been the psychoanalysis of cultural moments - of periods in national cinema, for example. I should note, in passing, the promise of work mediating director and national cinema study: for example, the study in progress of Janet Bergstrom on the move of Murnau, Lubitsch, Lang from Germany to the U.S. in which previous psychical and representational concerns fit strangely into new cultural modes. If cultural psychoanalysis has too often presented the danger of smoothing out diversity within the totalizations of singular complexes - as in Carl Schorske's work on the neurosis of fin-de-siecle Vienna - the newer work is attuned to contradiction, to periods as vibrant clashes of an array of psychical positions: we might cite Mary Ann Doane on the complications of desire in 40s women's films; Thomas Elsaesser on the rise of a regime of the visual in Weimar cinema; Marcia Landy on Italian fascist cinema's investment in familial narratives that offer no clear defence of a fascist ideology. Revealing, the new historiography of national cinemas is coincident with a rereading of Kracauer by Phil Rosen and David Rodowick, among others, in which an attentiveness to rupture and non-synchronicity of levels becomes the dominant concern. Not insignificantly, too, even methods of national history that rely less on psychoanalysis than on narratology turn to that narratology that encourages reading a plurality of meanings, rather than enclosing of a period in a zeitgeist: I think, for example, of John Tulloch's use of Greimas to argue the ideological negotiations in Australian cinema.

These critics look at national cinema as other than univocal expressions of dominant ideology. Quite differently, they interrogate such cinema to find ways to forge within them the possibilities of contradiction, tensions between domination and alternate psychical and ideological positions and inclinations. At the risk of a certain vanity, I want to suggest that my book, Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema, 1940-1950, is part of this movement, especially in two early chapters on the war years. The war would seem perfect for an institutions and media approach that would want to reduce culture to a tool of a dominant ideology. After all, the war was a moment of intense commitment where narrative set out to inspire participation in what the narrator of the wartime novel, Since You Went Away, refers to as "the greatest adventure we [husband and wife] ever had." Everyday life itself became an intense site of institutional scrutiny as everything from mode of address to manner of eating became subject to disciplinary rules.

If classic narrativity involves a regulated disturbance of a steady-state and then the restoration of steadiness, wartime films use this process to narrate war as a kind of engagement with, and overcoming of, contingencies of the moment. In this respect, the 'power' of my title refers to narrative's power as a form that works on historical contingency by enframing it within the limits of a tale. Hence, the interest for an ideology of commitment of what I call narratives of conversion. The conversion narrative, as in such films as Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, Flying Tigers, Pride of the Marines, Sergeant York, etc., chronicles the move to commitment by someone who initially resisted involvement (as the opening title of China Girl says, "An American is interested in three things: money, girls, and his country. Our hero was interested in two of these at the beginning of our story").

And yet, I suggest that even in this moment of intense confluence of government, business, and personal concerns, there are alternate forces and energies that find no easy place within the dominant narrative of commitment. Specifically, the prior domination of Hollywood narrative by commitment to romance and exceptional individuality can only pose problems for a new narrativity that needs to defer romance and direct commitment elsewhere. Hence, the title and theme of Uncertain Glory (1944) where the uncertainty concerns the incompatibility of options for the man: to stay with the woman or to sacrifice himself for the war.

Narrative needs what Frank Kermode calls "The Sense of an Ending", a final point that frames temporality in a coherence that nothing else can meaningfully follow. The problem of the war moment, then, is that such an ending is really unavailable; narrative is being constructed in the present, a temporality where there can be doubt as to how things will turn out. Faced with a contingent reality whose ending is unknown, the moment generates all sorts of tensions. There are, for example, resistances to the unifying ideology of a singular commitment; among these, the LA zoot suit riots (a veritable clash of culture and sub-culture with the dangling ornamental watch a challenge to the clock-work discipline of factory production, the baggy pants of the zoot-suiter a challenge to rationing ); the rise of wildcat and symbolic strikes; black America's Double V campaign, and so on. To cover over tensions, narrative either intensifies its will to control contingency mythically - as in Star-Spangled Rhythm where a character finds himself unattractive to women until he trades his zoot-suit for a uniform - or it begins to give in to contingency and narrate situations that can only seem in contradiction with the needs of commitment, situations overrun by a paranoid sense of the unbearability of things.

In all of this historical work, a number of critical theorists have become a necessary point of reference - none more so than Michel Foucault, and it is worth stopping for a moment at the contribution of Foucault to culture studies. Intriguingly, one possibility Foucault has presented to other disciplines - namely, an analysis of the very tactics of power at work in the emergence of those disciplines - is a possibility that does not have a resonance in film. At a time when literary criticism has produced a number of intense studies, such as Paul BovŽ's Intellectuals in Power, on the genealogy of criticism (with at least another half dozen such studies on the way), there seems little attention to a tactical history of the emergence of film study. No doubt, some of this is due to the newness of the field and even more to its smallness - who can afford to attack some of the obvious sites of power in film study today? One of the few theoretical investigations of the history of theory in film was Ed Lowry's intensely important book on French filmology as an example of an Althusserian problematic, but Ed's tragic death cut short any follow-up to this work. We still need analyses of the institutions of film theory.

Nonetheless, Foucault still offers a great deal for the analysis of formations of film production: an attention to discourse, a concern for the micrological movements of everyday discipline, a rethinking of power from repression to positive production (a rethinking whose effects for film history show up wonderfully in Richard De Cordova's dissertation on the emergent discourse on the star at the beginning of cinema [The Emergence of the Star System in America (1986)]. Recently, Gilles Deleuze's book on Foucault offers not only new turn in French thought; for our purposes, Deleuze's book has the specific advantage of reading Foucault as a thinker of the visual, a thinker for whom the visual needs modes of analysis other than those utilised for verbal form. Increasingly, we will have to come to grips with Deleuze's version of Foucault.

And yet, it is also necessary to suggest some limits of Foucault, especially at a moment when there seems to be ever increasing numbers of Foucault studies, Foucault readers and so on. Above all else, and this might seem paradoxical for someone who was so concerned with discourse, Foucault offers little theorisation of the specific operations of texts, of the movements of textual forms in relation to their historical formations. In the few cases where Foucault looks at artistic works, for example (in the essays in Language, Counter-Memory Practice), he tends to deal with what he sees as exceptional experimental texts that challenge limits, that go beyond constraints of everyday power. But for the exception of such exceptional works, the text in Foucault tends to be a functional form between power and the subjectivities it works on. Indeed, in one of his few comments on film - an interview on films of popular memory - Foucault tends to sound like a conspiracy-theorist of media, arguing that the retro-films are virtual tools in a discrediting of Gaullist mythology.

We must work then to mediate our theorisation of power with specific analyses of the movements of film form, narrative, and spectacle in relation to the deployments of power. In the absence of such mediation, our analyses of film may end up confirming the suspicion of those critics (such as Baudrillard) who see Foucault as not merely analyzing power but actually extending power by finding it everywhere. Indeed, I would argue that such is a potential effect of Bordwell-Thompson-Staiger's The Classic Hollywood Cinema which seems to me nothing so much as Foucauldian in its attempts to read the confluences of discourses constitutive of a Hollywood mode of production, a mode that overcomes resistance and that even liberally incorporates change as part of its paradigmatic openness. The Classic Hollywood Cinema is one of the most important books in film study in the last years, but I wonder if its emphasis on a massive and weighty discourse of empowering regularity might function as a blockage to work on resistance, on contradiction, on historical variability of film meaning. The Classic Hollywood Cinema is a book that everyone in film study must take a stance on: for example, one can choose to note that the sheer emphasis of the book on a pressuring discourse of regularity doesn't preclude the possibilities of divergent spectatorial positionings along the lines of sexual difference in response to the classic system.

The possibility of such choice goes back to something I declared earlier: theories read. For all the interest in history by film theory today, that interest implies no faith in a neutral capturing of the past. Today's theory posits the historical act as a reading in the sense that new theory gives to that term, an active writing of the past on the basis of present interests.

Of course, there are numerous modes proposed today under the rubric of 'reading'. Indeed, if earlier I quoted Wlad Godzich in preface to Paul de Man's Resistance to Theory, we might note that de Man himself comes precisely to equate theory with his notion of reading as an allegorical activity that operates a slippage between signifier and natural reference. Yet it seems to me that the theory de Man proposes - which we might sum up as American deconstruction - falls into precisely the authoritative position that Godzich is at pains to distinguish de Man from. American deconstruction reads for verbal ambiguities in the literary text, and in so doing it erects the deconstructionist into a crafted gamester and elevates the literary work into a special discourse that avoids the deadening univocality of referential forms. Interestingly, if American deconstruction has had an impact on literary criticism where it allows critics to continue to study the canon while pretending to do something new, it has had little force in film study: virtually the only two cases of an American deconstructive approach to film are Gregory Ulmer in Applied Grammatology and Tom Conley in a several readings of 40s films. Such work argues the possibilities for plurality in the text, but it is unable to treat those forces - institutions, reading formations, etc. - that have operated in various historical moments to make plurality into an insistent singularity. If Derrida's own critique of speech-act theory rests on an assumption that no context is ultimately fixable, certain of his works - for example, his essay on the teaching body or his recent study of the American declaration of independence - imply that one can nonetheless specify the provisional operations of contexts as ongoing sedimentations of power. This is a lead that American deconstruction has rarely tried to make use of, preferring to fetishize a supposedly essential play of language.

Generally, reading in new film study has resisted the American deconstructive temptation to challenge ideology through the posing a creative version of the literary text against ideology. Rather, the impulse has been to use the very materials of history as part of a creative act - specifically, a creative process of reading of historical elements off each other. The goal is not to posit reading as the truth of the past, but to offer it as a production of the past. One of my own hopes is that we continue to discover the excitement of a book like Walter Benjamin's Charles Baudelaire. This book strikes me as an exemplary first glimpse of the possibilities of new history. Against Adorno, who saw the book as offering nothing more than the most mechanical causalities and determinisms, it seems to me that Benajmin is suggesting a rewriting of history of itself as montage, a metonymic process in which each explanatory bit is qualified by the next, in which one works endlessly to re-constellate ideas according to ongoing concerns.

In this sense, I think cultural studies as a whole is coming to constitute itself as rhetorical in the sense that Frank Lentricchia has given to this term in Criticism and Social Change: the function of historical work is not to capture the past in a mimetic operation but to produce a past for the purposes of current work. We can see this at work even in Said where a creative sense of the critic's work operates against that restorative hermeneutics that I described earlier. When in a recent essay, Said suggests that one aspect of political practice involves "forging connections", the project can seem that hermeneutic and idealist one of rendering back to truth a situation that has been obscured, but the choice of the verb 'forging' can also send us in a very different direction to Lentricchia where 'forging' is used precisely for its double sense as a making and as a fictionalizing. Indeed, Said himself seems quite attracted to a notion of criticism as a productive montage that doesn't so much reflect the world (or end its ambiguity) as add a new praxis to it: Said expresses great admiration for the particular strategy of Mallek Alloula in The Colonial Harem where postcards of Occidental imperialism are altered by a new writing; he has produced a BBC program that is less a document on Orientalism than an active confrontation of words and images to construct a new and active representation of Orientalist activity; and his newest book (After the Last Sky) juxtaposes text against Jean Mohr photos precisely to engage in the same sort of dialogic activity that we see between Mohr and John Berger.

And here, I come to the second of my two anecdotes, an incident eight years after That Marvel: the Movies. July 12, 1931. . . in a middle class lycŽe in Le Havre, one of the newer teachers has been asked to present the keynote speech at the annual awarding of prizes of achievement to the students. The ceremony is traditionally an intensely serious, regal affair, and the parents show up decked out in the utmost formality to gaze as old men decked out in military medals consecrate the new youth of the French middle classes for their jobs as engineers of French society. It is part of the tradition of this ceremony to ask a newer professor to make the main speech, and all interest seems directed to young Jean-Paul Sartre, twenty-six years old. Sartre has disturbed some of the parents by taking as his residence a room in a fleabag hotel on the seedy waterfront but it is rumored that he is also a creative writer and therefore to be forgiven such eccentricities. It is easy, in fact, to be fairly optimistic about Sartre's performance; after all, he placed first in the country's exam in philosophy.

Sartre advances to the podium. Ill at ease in his suit and in the whole social role it seems to represent, and scandalously forgetting (or ignoring?) the requisite "Mesdames, messieurs," he begins:

The distribution of prizes is an expiatory sacrifice. The youngest of the professors takes as his responsibility all the sins of the year and makes public pentinence of them. . . .When he says the last word, the purification is completed, and so each year, all the lycŽes in France can open onto the next year in a state of grace. This punishment is much less hard for the scapegoat than for those who are listening to him. At least, he can choose his subject. . . .I will make use of my right: I am going to talk about the cinema. . . .[The talk leads to a scandal; parents listen, already planning out the letters of protestation that they will send to the school director. Sartre spends the entire talk on the dramatic possibilities of film and ends:] Your parents can reassure themselves: the cinema is not a bad school. It is an art . . . that reflects by its nature the civilisation of our age. What can teach you the beauty of the age in which we are living, the poetry of speed, the inhuman and splendid fatality of industry? What, if not your art, the cinema? So go often to the cinema, it is a good diversion in times of bad weather. . .

I see a possibility of reading Sartre's work in relation to cinema as a kind of cultural intervention, an attempt to take a dominant form of culture and rework it in new directions. Sartre here would be enaging in a cultural practice of cinema, trying to avoid those ways in which cinema becomes a hiearchical art, an art of alienation and alterity. His goal is not mimetic - an attempt to make his language explain cinema and culture as they are - but rhetorical - an attempt to make his language rework previous language forms in an ongoing movement of strategic rewriting.

The 1931 discourse is significant in a number of ways. Most immediately, it suggests a certain scandalous practice of cinema. If cinema is precisely that scandalous art, as Sartre will later recount in Les Mots, that a respectable upper-middle class will desperately try to keep its children away from - not only for the corruptions on the screen but for the corruptions that go on in the movie theater where usually isolated classes can meet in direct reciprocity - then Sartre most immediately uses his 1931 speech to throw that scandal back into the face of the bourgeoisie: he will keep harping on the powers of cinema (this, in a period, when most people consider cinema inappropriate in scholarly discourse); he will insert cinema into a lineage of artistic greatness that includes such luminaries as Anatole France; he will challenge his own authoritative image as philosopher by arguing against all aesthetics of transcendence, and all metaphysics of abstraction, by promoting what he sees as a realist, often crude art of the quotidian, cinema as a realist form whose goal is not to celebrate the transcendental freedom of art but to show art's groundedness in representations of destiny as constrained, limited, situated. For an academic world of canons, of respectabilities, of hierarchies of high and low, cinema can only appear as disruptive scandal and Sartre plays this disruption for all it is worth. Sartre speaks of cinema, knowing that that very (f)act of speaking will exceed certain bounds of propriety. To be sure, there is much that is classical here: like Van Zile, Sartre talks of cinema as special medium in the modern age. But, it seems to me as much that Sartre senses the Benjaminian possibilities of the reference to mass culture as in itself a reconstellation of traditional arrangements of knowledge: to talk about film in that academic setting is to rewrite that setting. It is in such reconstellations that the interest of cinema resides for me: not an interest in what cinema is, but an interest in what it can do, in what new discourses of knowledge can do to it.

Dana Polan was the keynote speaker for the film theory section of the conference and one of two overseas guests sponsored by ASSA. [There are no notes nor bibliography in the printed journal.]

New: 24 February, 1996 | Now: 9 March, 2015