Much has been made of the decline of the political and cultural left in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of most Eastern Block states. Two years ago, John Hartley observed in these very pages, that although the visibility of the margins was greater than ever, leftwing national and international partisanship, now deprived of a unifying image and, indeed, 'suspicious of totalising metaphors of unity' (6), was fragmenting rather than rallying around a common cause. For Hartley, like most leftwing intellectuals, the connections between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the left were obvious:
Cultural political intellectual work was radically destabilised with the demolition of the Berlin Wall and its equivalent metaphorical binary oppositions, resulting in such a pervasive doubt about the existence of "the left" - broad, ultra, sectarian or whatever - to which we all belong, that there was no longer any ready referent for the pronoun "we" in cultural politics, including in Cultural Studies, which had until then been unquestioned as a radical academic enterprise, despite the mixed ambitions and allegiances of its practitioners. (5)
Investigating cultural studies as an academic discipline in the light of these developments, Hartley attacks the kind of historiography that attempts to "explain" history by posing seemingly causal relations between phenomena, and that views history as a linear process. He takes issue with those chroniclers who prefer to read the epistemological development of cultural studies through the successive designation of such "founding fathers" as Hoggart, Hall, and Williams - who begot whom begot whom...?
Yet, those of us who stand behind Hartley's critique must ask ourselves whether the Berlin Wall has not assumed a function among intellectuals which partakes of the very same type of historiography we'd like to see defunct. Must we not, by now, be suspicious of the privileging of just such sole causal relations as Hartley suggests exist between the dismantling of a divide and the disintegration of a longstanding international alliance of activists and intellectuals? I think that Hartley's article implies that the fall of the Wall, whether in concrete or in metaphor, may have been the last and decisive instance which triggered the vanishing of this unifying referent "we", but hardly its original cause.
The task thus becomes to reinvestigate not only the developments of our disciplines and the histories of our alliances, but also the relation between our concrete politics and the symbols we designate for them. I would like to examine this tendency from the perspective of media politics. Working as an academic in cinema studies and as an editor for the film magazine Cineaste, I have witnessed some of the turmoils which cultural intellectuals and activists have gone through since 1989. I also think that Cineaste has a few key features in common with cultural studies as a discipline: its affiliation with leftist causes and agendas; its contextual approach to film, stressing the political dimension of popular culture; its broad choice of topics; and its quality of criticism which, while informed by academic discourses, has consistently stressed a popular journalistic style of presentation. Finally, I associate myself more personally with Hartley's situation as a member of a younger generation who, upon entering the field, finds himself part of a tradition which he did not experience personally.
To contribute to the debate on what is at stake for intellectuals working in and outside the academy in the post-Cold War era, let me start by briefly summarising the history of the magazine: founded in 1967 by editor-in-chief Gary Crowdus, Cineaste called itself 'A Magazine for the Film Student', and was circulated as a mimeographed, handstapled pamphlet with a circulation of 500 to students, educators, and filmmakers. With the anti-war movement growing, the magazine quickly became more politicised and less concerned with techniques of filmmaking until, in 1969, it adamantly called itself a political film magazine. The editorial of the 20th anniversary issue in 1987 points out that Cineaste saw itself as part of an emerging left culture, which included such publications as Ramparts and Radical America. In the area of film and media, this emerging culture saw the founding of the Liberation News Service, The Underground Press Service, and such radical film production and distribution services as Newsreel and American Documentary. The magazine's notion of our culture has determined how it has defined its own function as a political film publication. The editorial board ran interviews with filmmakers such as Fernando Solanas and Costa Gavras and affiliated itself with European Art Cinema and Third World cinemas. Particular solidarity was extended to Latin American filmmakers because of the movements they founded, and their intention to break Hollywood hegemony (even if many of them privately admired certain Hollywood auteurs).
Thus, Cineaste ran articles on alternative, radical movements such as the Italian Free Newsreel movement and became a leading authority on Cuban Cinema. Apart from film journalism, the magazine also emphasised education as a more general task of the leftist media by offering its readers a series of reading lists on such topics as political science, history, economics, and sociology. Significantly, Cineaste didn't see itself merely as a magazine covering leftist culture - it saw itself as an integral part of what was then called "the alternative movement". In best Gramscian manner, this movement comprised many diverse segments of politics and culture, such as radical literature and poetry, alternative film production, distribution and exhibition, anti-war demonstrations, political meetings and the grassroots production of media. Cineaste editorials focused on a critique of the depiction of violence in films, on the social responsibility of the film artist and, significantly, on a critique of the academy.
Currently, young intellectuals of my post-baby boom generation fail to realize that the academy was then considered part of the establishment - the enemy - and even its radicalization in the wake of 1968 was eyed with suspicion by the alternative movement. It wasn't until the 1970s that non-sectarian intellectuals moved into colleges and universities. As the term "tenured radicals" became a household word, the alternative movement was slowly swallowed up by the academy. I am emphasising this not out of some kind of anti-academic sentiment - after all, I am an academic myself. Rather, I want to point to the fact that what was commonly called "the left" was never a unified movement to begin with, but a more precarious conglomerate of factions, coalitions, cadres and parties which, as it grew older, increasingly depended on powerful unifying metaphors.
Politically, Cineaste always stressed its non-sectarian stance. It has never been affiliated with any specific leftwing organization, and has consistently made a point of avoiding Marxist jargon and academic neologisms. Thus, Cineaste has undergone a development somewhat similar to Cultural Studies. Cultural Studies was a conglomerate of alternative leftist studies in the 1950s, undertaken mainly by untenured academic underdogs, who were institutionalised only when Cultural Studies came of age as a discipline in the 1980s. 1 And much like Cultural Studies now, half of Cineaste's editorial board, if not already tenured, is seeking tenure in the near or distant future - times have changed... But what exactly went down along the way, long before the Berlin Wall?
To begin with, non-sectarianism involved certain pressures and responsibilities. In this respect, Cineaste was no different from anywhere else. Thematically, while the magazine always stressed independent filmmaking, it has from the beginning emphasised regular coverage of Hollywood, rightly recognising the ideological impact of popular culture on the individual. The editors wanted to maintain this coverage while continuing to support an alternative artistic scene, which was (and continues to be) dominated by white male heterosexual filmmakers of narratives and documentaries. For example, such artists as John Sayles, Haskell Wexler, and Costa Gavras were part of a community of liberals and/or leftwingers who enjoyed a longstanding relationship with the magazine or, at least, belonged to the accepted canon of non-dominant cinema.
Cineaste's sympathies were aligned, from the beginning, with the cinemas of Third World countries, Blockfree Nations, and the American labor movement. One could even say that the magazine, unlike many other leftist groups, remained relatively immune to powerful, clich-ridden metaphors of international socialism. A 1982 editorial, for example, protested the Polish government's treatment of the country's filmmakers under the newly declared martial law - Cineaste was always closer to socialist art than to socialist politics and, in turn, projected a more diverse image of international leftist culture than sectarian leftists themselves were prepared to indulge.
Cineaste's relation to the left has for the most part been critical and, at times, precarious; however, its leftist position and politics made it, to a certain extent, a mirror of the left and, as such, the magazine inevitably came to reflect some of its dilemmas. The first of these dilemmas was that, by the early 1980s, the left internationally was growing old. As intellectuals, artists, and activists - with or without a metaphor - were aging and aching, and the alternative movement dissolved or merged with academia, the leftist media in general was slowly being deprived of a mission. For instance, the revolutionary cinemas Cineaste had so fiercely supported during the 1960s and 1970s were defunct or had gone stale. A sense of burn-out began to haunt the magazine, just as it did many other left organizations. The fall of the wall is significant to the extent that it symbolised that, since 1989, it has practically been impossible to sustain state socialism. However, the decline of western working class culture and the splintering of the intellectual left became visible long before that. As the unified image of that class dissolved, so did the image of its champions and the concept of a unified agenda by which the class was supposed to be propelled forward. No matter to what extent they relied on symbols and metaphors - neither Cineaste nor most other leftwing media nor cultural studies could continue to regard themselves as magical agents of the working class. While a sense of confusion about this role had been haunting leftist culture for some time, the difficult process of reassembling one's self-image didn't really get under way until the disintegration of the Eastern Block.
In hindsight, it is fair to say that the 1980s was a decade in which leftwing organizations and their media lost a lot of time. Many leftwing magazines were moving in different directions, reflecting a growing sense of confusion and a lack of clear editorial policy; overrun by Reaganism, editorial boards found themselves in ideological crisis and politically adrift. As Reaganomics was slowly seeping into all sectors of American life, first seducing, then dropping the lower middle class, new forms of social antagonism sprang up around new forms of crisis, conflict, and a host of political and social exigencies, such as AIDS and police violence. After twenty years, Gramsci was just around the corner again - except many leftwingers failed to notice him.
Increasingly emerging from invisibility during the 1980s were such diverse marginal groups as Latinos, young urban African Americans, and gays and lesbians. These groups had been developing their own very particular cultural practices and, often closely related to those, their own forms of producing and consuming popular culture. Cineaste, during its first twenty years, had on occasion been alert to mainstream misrepresentations of these minorities. Yet, the fact that the magazine's coverage of some of them was largely confined to articles on, say, blacks in Hollywood or gays in Cruising somewhat replicated the pattern of marginalization.
Before it became the New Black Cinema of Spike Lee and John Singleton, experimental and music video were addressing African American identity throughout the first half of the 1980s. Gay and lesbian cinema goes back to pre-Stonewall days, but it wasn't until 1986 that the magazine ran a feature on independent narratives centering around gay characters. Gay and lesbian media responses to AIDS go back as far as 1982 - in the form of short films, documentaries, and experimental videos; and ten years before the much hailed Queer New Wave brought increased visibility to AIDS and homosexuality. To these cultural identities, partly situated outside traditional film forms, Cineaste was responding only inconsistently.
This has recently changed only because the magazine has reminded itself of some of its parallels to Cultural Studies. Like Cultural Studies, it was influenced by the academy's break into complex Marxism in the late 1960s (Hall "Cultural Studies and the Centre" 24). Practically, this meant that most coverage of mainstream cinema was informed by an ideology critique, itself resulting from a reading of the base/superstructure metaphor; most coverage of foreign and independent cinema was guided by the way in which these cinemas differed from hegemonic popular culture both formally and in terms of their modes of production, distribution, and exhibition.
The concrete changes that were taking place at Cineaste had various reasons: first, new people were brought onto the editorial board, such as Cindy Lucia, Richard Porton, and I, whose close relationship to the academy increasingly influenced the magazine's content and apprach. This also resulted in a fluctuation of writers. Second, there was pressure from such funding agencies as the New York State Council of the Arts which, during the 1980s, increasingly emphasised the importance of multicultural issues in the media and in media publishing. While the NYSCA grants, which Cineaste has received since the mid-1970s, have been modest and irregular, they have also played a role in the recent developments the magazine has gone through.
While Cineaste has retained some aspects of its editorial policy, most notably its coverage of world cinema, the overall changes are quite noticeable. The coverage of independent cinema has increased and diversified, partly because the magazine has become more attentive to alternative film forms, and partly because the number and diversity of independent films and filmmakers has increased. Among those featured in recent Cineaste issues are Ross McElwee, Tom Kalin, Julie Dash, Leslie Harris, Marlon Riggs, Todd Haynes and Barbara Kopple.
What has changed most notably, however, is the magazine's coverage of mainstream cinema, again, partly because mainstream films look different and have different agendas and sensibilities than ten years ago, and partly because our definition of mainstream has changed - a point I will discuss at length later on. In the early 1980s, for example, the magazine's Hollywood coverage usually focused on historical epics (Reds 1981; Ghandi 1982) and liberal films (Missing 1992) for their revisionist and progressive elements, or critiqued what seemed to be intrinsic features of dominant style. For example, a 1983 article analyzed misogyny in the films of James Toback, Brian dePalma and Martin Scorsese. Recent issues, by contrast, have approached mainstream films in ways that reflect their increasingly self-conscious style, stratified marketing, and diversity of spectators. Since this very often involves diverse perspectives on a film, Cineaste has frequently organised symposia instead of publishing a single review of a film. The symposium on Thelma and Louise, for example, presented a more diverse array of opinions on Hollywood's representation of women, than the abovementioned article on misogyny, including some discussion of issues of female spectatorship and pleasure. The symposium on Oliver Stone's JFK (1992), for example, commended the film for breaking the myth of the lone assassin and the magic bullet theory, but also attacked it for flaunting its own kind of historical revisionism that reflected sexism and homophobia. I will further explain some editorial changes in connection with my discussion of the recent, more general changes in the cultural field. While the examples are meant to show that Cineaste has come some way in the past five or so years, they are not supposed to invoke the impression that the magazine has arrived, nor that Cineaste is always prone to present the best approach to a topic. In fact, some subsequent points may also illustrate the magazine's limitations.
How do the recent cultural and political changes modify the agenda of leftist film criticism? Methodologically, they call for a rereading of the base/superstructure metaphor against a (post-)Gramscian concept of hegemony. 2 This may be old news within the academy, but it has yet to be put into practice in the everyday workings of the leftist media. By now, we should realize that the concept of a monolithic culture is simplistic and naive - rather, we must think of "culture" as a complex network of intersecting cultures which influence and interact with one another. And just as the concept of the non-dominant has to be greatly complexified, the concept of the dominant also needs to be viewed as subtle, mobile, and lacking in clear, unified intentions.
Stuart Hall aptly and concisely characterises Gramsci's concept of hegemony as neither being a permanent state of affairs nor being uncontested. Rather, it is 'the (temporary) mastery of a particular theatre of struggle', enabling us 'to think of society as complex formations, necessarily contradictory, always historically specific' ("Cultural Studies and the Centre" 36). Stringing out the central binary opposition into a dispersed field, the first thing to do, then, is to part with the kind of romanticised concept of collectivity, which the left has always nourished in response to 'the dominant', and to replace it with a pragmatic and sensitive strategy to build coalitions. For this, we may attempt to usefully reformulate the concept of non-sectarianism: this concept, by definition, blocks one's commitment to any one side, but commits one to siding with ever changing blocks, coalitions, and groups of oppressed in a multitude of appearances.
For a film magazine such as Cineaste this means cultural coverage of the most diverse order. Cultural intellectuals mustn't attempt to prescribe coalitions or impose a hierarchy of various orders of the oppressed, but constantly inform the public about new possibilities for building coalitions. More importantly, we must recognize that certain minority groups may not only have few common interests, but that their interests, in certain cases, may be pitted against one another. More often than not, however, these conflicts are false conflicts, resulting from the ways in which these groups are represented to one another.
Two examples immediately come to mind: first, the religious fundamentalists' ad campaign against the National Endowment of the Arts' (NEA) funding of art projects. This campaign utilised footage from Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1991) in a reactionary statement against sexually explicit art. Apart from attempting to discredit the NEA and gays in the eyes of all segments of society, this invective eventually contributed to the particular homophobia among some heterosexual African Americans, who believe homosexuality debilitates the political movement and disparages the public image of African Americans. Second, some Colorado rightwingers and religious fundamentalists introduced a petition this past year to stop and/or overturn all legislation protecting the civil rights of gays and lesbians in the state. This rhetoric pitted the relative economic prosperity of many white gay men against the economic status of ethnic minorities (who, in the process, are being misrepresented as exclusively heterosexual).
The task of the leftist media is to locate and analyze these seeming conflicts of interests within the field of political, social, and cultural hegemony, so as to determine their real causes. Cultural misrepresentation in the hegemonic field is not easily controlled by one source, but is articulated by diverse agents on behalf of diverse interests. Even if one centrally controlled invective is operating, the result is usually a more complex struggle for signification involving certain ideology effects. On the one hand, this process involves the emergence of political and cultural identities whose articulation is necessarily partial; on the other hand, it involves intermittent attempts on the part of other groups to seize the vocabulary of these articulations and turn it against them.
To return to the two examples at hand specifically with regard to media politics: many documentaries on the Civil Rights movement and, specifically, on the Black Panthers or Malcolm X, have stressed the straight pride of African American manhood, directly or indirectly downplaying the positions of women or homosexuals. While a magazine such as Cineaste has supported such films in the past, to the extent that they give visibility to minority identity, it also has an obligation to critique such efforts for their direct or indirect function in reducing people to certain circumscribed definitions of cultural identity. Again, this is often impossible within the space of a single review. The diversity of reviews within the Malcolm X-symposium also resulted from a diversity of such methodological approaches as postmodernism, feminism, political science, etc. While Todd Boyd, for example stressed the role of Malcolm for contemporary heterosexual African Americans, drawing on the significance of rap music, bell hooks focused on the film's problematic representation of women.
Moreover, the leftist media must emphasize those efforts that represent alterity among the oppressed and articulate subcultural identity among subcultures. For Cineaste, it has thus been necessary not only to cover such a mainstream film as Spike Lee's Malcolm X at length but also to increase the visibility of the work of such artists and media activists as Isaac Julien and Marlon Riggs.
The representation of minority groups in the mainstream media is much less linear than previously assumed, and its effect on the viewers is difficult to determine. Specifically with regard to American television this representation is determined by economics and by the FCC's mandate of equal treatment of minority groups. On the one hand, this means that one is unlikely to see negative stereotypes on television. A made for television movie would never depict gays in the same way as, say, Oliver Stone's JFK. On the other hand, the equal treatment clause is not without problems: it has the effect of a matrix which guarantees minorities a certain visibility. But their specific representations reflect the cultural makeup of the majority that determines the matrix. When it comes to representing the majority, the matrix allows for a certain regulated diversity. The television protrait of a heterosexual woman, for example, may inscribe a certain number of differences with respect to race, marital status, professional life, personal character, and so on. The portraits of minority characters, already limited in number, are narrowed further because the main difference inscribed is the minority status as such. Therefore, unlike the portrait of a heterosexual woman, the portrait of a lesbian on television will either primarily revolve around her sexuality or around her other features, but will never present a more organic intersection of both. Specifically gays and lesbians in the U.S. always automatically incur metonymization in the act of gaining public visibility. This is what we call "positive" stereotypes, and they are not only hard to change, but also hard to prevent since any modifications still adhere to the mechanism of the matrix of network television. If a television portrait of a gay man, for example, concentrates on his sexuality, this portrait bears the burden of generalization and reductionism (as in the case of Longtime Companion 1990); if a portrait downplays his sexuality it will be charged with subordinating or even disavowing crucial aspects of his minority status. Thus, the sexuality of gay protagonists is usually sanitised while gay supporting characters "just happen to be gay".
Its commercial and social function compels American network television to reflect white middle-class identity. Such films as An Early Frost, but also Hollywood's Making Love and American Playhouse's Longtime Companion compulsively serve up positive stereotypes of white middle class gay men. The protagonists are mostly professionals with a sanitised sexuality and in monogamous relationships. The above mentioned right wing invective against constitutional protection of gays, which confronted the black lower middle-class with the stereotype of the rich white fag, has been able to partake in precisely those images of middle class gays put forth by television and liberal mainstream films. While these films held an important function in increasing the visibility of homosexuality at an historically specific moment (especially in the case of An Early Frost, the first mainstream film to deal with AIDS and homosexuality), the impressions they yield cluster into serviceable shorthand about gay men in specific and, therefore, also end up servicing the rhetoric of divide et impera. Thus, the obligation of specifically American television to guarantee that minorities receive "the same treatment as everyone else" may, indeed, act in concert with the general perpetuation of their marginal position in society. The success of direct attempts by gay activists to intervene in this pattern is questionable because the dynamics at work transcend the instance of individual agents. The legal and monetary relations of television don't necessarily work for or against each other.
This is just one example pointing to the need for us to expand our reading of the base/superstructure metaphor. Economic changes in film production in the United States and methodological advances in film criticism and theory compel us to take evolving approaches to film. While cultural studies has advanced our understanding of mainstream film's impact on a culturally and historically specific spectator, it is the very concept of "mainstream" that is in flux.
For example, the category of independent (non-Hollywood) feature is not automatically devoid of dominant elements. On the one hand, we at Cineaste have observed with a certain excitement the growing number of independently produced films in the US; on the other hand, we cannot but realize that most of these productions are still made by white male heterosexual film-makers who, fresh out of film school, have a strong desire to make genre films. Some of these films may be formally interesting reworkings of certain genres but more often than not they fail to critique the cultural implications underlying those genres.
A great number of independent narrative features, such as the recent films of Hal Hartley and John Torturro, for example, are steeped in Oedipal patterns of narration, character treatment, and conflict resolution. Too often, some formally innovative aspects appear sufficient evidence for critics to hail these films as critiques of the mainstream enacted from outside. Yet, it becomes clear that a film's mode of production cannot be the sole criterion for determining its ideological content. Shoestring budgets combined with liberalism are no guarantee of a critique of racism, sexism and homophobia.
And even if such a critique is present, these films' formal aspects and visual iconoclasm may overdetermine their effect on the spectator. A case in point would be Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. On the one hand, the film's non-linear narrative, its extremely stylised and theatricalised violence, and the homosexual subtext (Hilferty 79) make it an example of an interesting reworking of the gangster film genre, utilising genre conventions and formal elements to highlight and critique mechanisms deeply ingrained in society. On the other hand, even a de-naturalised depiction of violence still plays into the audience's desire for violent spectacles.
What has also changed in the past ten years is the general influence of the cinema on society. Although the concept of hegemony involves a dispersed, non-regular, non-linear struggle for power and signification, televised definitions of cultural identity can today be said to have more influence than Hollywood on defining the mainstream in the larger cultural field. While for Hollywood, the age group between fifteen and twenty-five is the prime movie audience, this segment of the population, in turn, looks at the cinema as merely one among many forms of popular entertainment. Television, and especially soaps, sitcoms and MTV reach more members of US society on a broader, more constant level than even Hollywood blockbusters.
Because of its key function in contemporary culture, television cannot be ignored by any media publication. Unlike Cultural Studies, Cineaste has not paid consistent attention to television, partly because of its nature as a film magazine, partly because it felt that television was too important to be merely "squeezed in". We need to acknowledge that, because of their different modes of production, television movies and theatrically released films have acquired quite diverse modes of spectatorship and reception, and thus require very different critical approaches.
In 1985, Elayne Rapping wrote in Cineaste (30) that television is a less risky commercial enterprise than Hollywood films: television's production values are lower; the risk is more calculable because television movies have a far lesser product status than their Hollywood counterparts - in television, the commercial is the main product and the movie only acts as a layout for product placement. Television movies are less sophisticated than Hollywood prestige films and, at the same time, are able to tackle more controversial issues. This is the case, for example, in An Early Frost (AIDS, homosexuality); A Private Matter (1993, abortion); The Burning Bed (1984, domestic violence); and The Day After (1983, nuclear warfare), to name just a few. While the economic fate of a Hollywood production is directly determined by the movie goer, that of television movies only indirectly. Instead, their design is primarily measured against the judgement of a few sponsors, whose fiscal leveraging, for all the abovementioned reasons, does not automatically translate into a moral one.
While these general parameters have been sketched out for some time now, I believe that to adequately explore television's function as a 'social unifier', as Rapping aptly calls the medium, would simply require a different type of magazine than Cineaste. However, we need to stress that, if any film magazine decides to continue to focus on film, its editors still need to monitor television's trends, analyze the constant inroads television makes into the context of film, and consider television's amplification effect of the cinema.
Here, home video has been one of the emerging venues for Hollywood to disseminate its films. The cases of Basic Instinct (1992) and Sliver (1993) indicate a new trend: the shooting of alternative versions of a movie, one for U.S. theaters, one for European theaters/U.S. home video. The latter is an increasingly lucrative market for studios to sell sensationalist subject treatment and still eschew a commercially restrictive ratings system. These and other effects of home video will continue to determine the face of mainstream films and should be the subject of articles. Cineaste introduced a home video column in the late 1980s, also recognising the function of home video as tool for education and outlet for films whose distribution is severely limited to art houses or revival theaters. The living room gains more importance as the area in which media of all kinds will be received in more and more complex conditions of spectatorship.
What all these examples add up to is that critics have to radically expand their understanding of the term "contextual meaning". It is insufficient to treat film as a monolithic object that reflects certain overt discourses of its environment. Rather, we need to look at film as just one discourse among many, which may stand in no apparent relation to one another but, nevertheless, may contain more abstract or deeper structural parallels.
The recent independent film Suture (1993), by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, serves to summarize my point. At heart a conventional crime thriller about murder and framed identity, the film involves a man's attempt to trade places with his brother in order to escape his impending patricide trial. This conventional plot is offset by aspects of the mise-en-scÉne but, most notably, the politics of film casting: one of the brothers is played by a white actor while the other one is portrayed by a black actor, a fact the fiction never overtly addresses. All protagonists in the film (mis)take the black man for his white brother, even defying such comparative visual "evidence" as videos and photographs.
We learn that, while images are commonly believed to hold epistemological truth, their mutability is always subject to rhetoric and ideology. The alienation effect achieved by this film's dead pan treatment is therefore more than a gimmick as it foregrounds television news' and other media's manipulative construction of race and (ethnic) identity. Thus, the film's real volatility lies in relation to the Rodney King video and the law's utilization of visual evidence in the trial about the beating of truck driver Reginald Dennie during the L.A. riots. This relation relies on the audience's contextual knowledge, and their wish to seek correlatives between one sense and another - however, not in terms of conventional allegory, but through mobilization of the dialectic aspect of spectatorship which, in the process, is defined as entirely historical. In other words: the film doesn't have a "message", but becomes a heuristic tool for the spectator, who is forced to import an array of cultural and political meanings, identities (i.e., ethnic; spectatorial), and perceived rhetorics.
If the film critic's need to understand concepts of culture, ideology, and their relation to film is growing, so is the need for theory. Most epistemological fields and humanities disciplines have a traditional reliance on theory. Cineaste's commitment to theory, like that of cultural studies, resulted from the need to investigate the material, social, and historical conditions of the existence of culture and ideology. Hall points out that the reworkings of the base/superstructure metaphor in Cultural Studies triggered a flurry of theorising at the Birmingham Centre. While this encompassed ideological analysis, media studies and historiography, it also contained a necessary element of theoretical self-examination - a theorization of theory, so to speak - in order to usefully combine theory and practical field work:
The term 'culture' could not be simply taken on loan from other traditions of thought and surreptitiously applied, by infinite extension, to an unfolding series of new objects [...] Terms and concepts cannot be treated or changed in isolation; they must be judged in terms of their position in a set of concepts [...] This is not cited in defence of every twist and turn of the theoretical screw, but it explains the necessarily theoretical nature of our enterprise as opposed to the obviousness of empirical common sense. ("Cultural Studies and the Centre" 25)
Hall's last sentence, however, marks one of the divergences of Cineaste from much of Cultural Studies. While Hall admits the problem with what he calls 'theoreticism' (26), he nevertheless makes a commitment to theory that goes far beyond methodological pragmatism. Deeply political (if not ideological), this statement posits theory as the basis providing Cultural Studies with its key identity as a relentless interrogator.
The statement also contains some implications which, I believe, caused Cineaste to balk at theory. The specific motivation behind this may have been understandable - if not entirely justifiable. Before the mid-1980s, the magazine had bandied about film theory mainly in the form of Marxist film analysis, a debate on the ideological implication of documentary forms, and some modest and scattered applications of feminism. By that time, however, film theory had been taken over by semiotics, psychoanalysis and poststructuralist theories. The debate on semiotics in three consecutive Cineaste issues in 1980 put an end to theory in the magazine's pages. While Christian Metz, one of the chief exponents of semiotics, stood outside the American academy, the critiques and applications of his work in the United States were taking place entirely within it, and became grist to Cineaste's anti-academic mill. The editors, at least from their own perspective, thought they were thus exorcising the anti-Gramscian demon of hermeneutic science. A recent Jump Cut article, however, critiqued that stance (112), implying that the magazine was deliberately forgoing the possibilities of relentless questioning. By contrast, the Cineaste editors, when they made their decision, felt that this loss was incurred by exactly the kind of jargon laden theory that proliferated in the early 1980s. Before and since then, Cineaste, while rejecting pure theory, has consistently attempted to maintain a standard of readable, yet theoretically informed analysis.
However, as the gap between theory and practice was widening during the 1980s, the landscape of film publications precipitated into such highly specialised journals as Wide Angle, Cinema Journal, and Camera Obscura, and more popularly based magazines like Film Comment. Cineaste, along with Film Quarterly at the time, adopted a middle ground, realising the increasing difficulty of practicing a theoretically informed criticism in an "accessible" format, that could still tackle the complexities of the cultural and intellectual field.
Of course, "accessibility" is the buzzword that has haunted academics and journalists alike for the past fifteen years. While Hall's concern with "theoreticism" may primarily have referred to academic nitpicking, I believe it also implies a dislike of jargon. At issue is the tendency of certain writers to use certain words in order to hide behind them rather than to clarify a point. Yet, whoever feels the need to make a commitment to the concept of accessibility, also makes a commitment to constantly reinvestigating the meaning and usefulness of that concept for, if posed as a totalising dictum, it seems of no use at all.
As the term involves the concept of inclusion/exclusion of certain readers, those who condemn academic jargon entirely for its exclusionary effect also have to hold their own prose to this standard. A 1978 Cineaste editorial states that the editors held no high hopes that a Detroit auto worker would pick up the magazine - however, just in case he did, the magazine's style should certainly not deter him from reading it. This statement implies both a detrimental and a constructive idea. The detrimental idea lies not so much in a leftist romanticism as a naive projection assuming a certain level of education of all members of the general public. Nevertheless, I believe it is near impossible for editors not to project a certain image of one's own readers onto one's editorial approach. Whether or not Cineaste decides to open its pages to "pure" theory, it will continue to demarcate itself from excessive academic jargon. The debate around accessibility is therefore not over, neither within nor between editorial boards, and especially not for those publications that still view themselves as part of the leftist media.
Moreover, Cineaste has never assumed that some of its own terminology (implying specific film and literary terms) may not also remain obscure to some of its readers. However, the point is to stress a syntactical function of prose, and thus shift the emphasis from the level of education to the full spectrum of factors by which a magazine can reach out to its readers. Hopefully, this strategy reflects theoretical volubility as much as the notion of organic intellectualism - and I think that this is the more crucial and constructive implication of the abovementioned Cineaste editorial: the statement rightly implies that there might be other reasons that keep the working class from picking up magazines like Cineaste - which, of course, also hold good for more academic journals: distribution, anti-intellectualism, forms of social overdetermination, etc.
I believe that, rather than meeting an intrinsic solution, this problem will, for better or worse, continue to regulate itself in terms of the pragmatic determinants of the publication context, the readership, and the social field. Apart from that, I think it should really go without saying that all magazines have an interest in achieving the most pertinent prose and presentational style for their own specific project. Only then can our work become a network of strategic cooperations. One thing we ought to have learned from Cultural Studies by now is to be sensitive to the function of specific and local strategies within the larger cultural organism.
I would like to thank my Cineaste colleague Cindy Lucia for all her helpful suggestions and for helping me revise this article.
1. See Hartley (6). Hartley stresses the way in which Cultural Studies' general self-image changed from that of a hip late-1960s outsider approach to one that reflects its institutionalization; see also Stuart Hall, "The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities".
2. For a post-Gramscian Marxist analysis, see Laclau and Mouffe.
Hall, Stuart. "The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities". October 53 (1990): 11-23.
___. "Cultural Studies and the Centre: Some Problematics and Problems", in Culture, Media, Language. Eds. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, Paul Willis. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1980. 15-47.
Hartley, John. "Popular Reality: A (Hair)Brush with Cultural Studies", Continuum 4:2 (1991): 5-18.
Hilferty, Robert. "Reservoir Dogs". Cineaste 20:4 (1993): 79-82.
Kleinhans, Chuck, with John Hess. "US Film Periodicals". Jump Cut 38 (1993): 105-122.
Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso, 1985.
Rapping, Elayne. "Made For Television Movies: The Domestication of Social Issues". Cineaste 14:2 (1985): 30-33.
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