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Elegy for Theory

Elegy for Theory

D. N. Rodowick
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Harvard University Press
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    Elegy for Theory
    Book Description:

    Rhetorically charged debates over theory have divided scholars of the humanities for decades. InElegy for Theory, D. N. Rodowick steps back from well-rehearsed arguments pro and con to assess why theory has become such a deeply contested concept. Far from lobbying for a return to the "high theory" of the 1970s and 1980s, he calls for a vigorous dialogue on what should constitute a new, ethically inflected philosophy of the humanities. Rodowick develops an ambitiously cross-disciplinary critique of theory as an academic discourse, tracing its historical displacements from ancient concepts of theoria through late modern concepts of the aesthetic and into the twentieth century. The genealogy of theory, he argues, is constituted by two main lines of descent--one that goes back to philosophy and the other rooted instead in the history of positivism and the rise of the empirical sciences. Giving literature, philosophy, and aesthetics their due, Rodowick asserts that the mid-twentieth-century rise of theory within the academy cannot be understood apart from the emergence of cinema and visual studies. To ask the question, "What is cinema?" is to also open up in new ways the broader question of what is art.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-72608-6
    Subjects: Philosophy, Film Studies, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. [Illustration]
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. In Place of Beginning …
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. 1. A Compass in a Moving World
    (pp. 1-5)

    In the final pages ofThe Virtual Life of Film, I recounted my puzzlement at being asked if the study of film would remain relevant in an era dominated by electronic and digital images. No doubt cinephiles of a certain generation regard the disappearance of the photographic image with intense nostalgia, perhaps even mourning. Indeed, the millennial form of cinephilia has become historical in a way that swings between mourning and melancholia. A desire in pursuit of a lost object: Has not the experience of film always been such—that is, the longing to recover the past in the present...

  6. 2. Many Lines of Descent
    (pp. 5-7)

    In the contemporary context, the concept of theory is like a coin too long in circulation. As the coin has been passed from hand to hand, its surface has become flat and unburnished, its value illegible. If our conceptual picture of theory is clouded, perhaps this is because we have forgotten that it is amovingpicture. Theory, as we live and challenge it today and as it challenges us, has a history. It is notalanguage-game but many, comprising various overlapping yet often contradictory and contested forms of life. Little wonder that now as in the 1920s it...

  7. 3. Theoria as Practical Philosophy
    (pp. 7-12)

    Theory has, in the course of centuries, been a highly variable concept. One finds the noble origins of theory in the Greek sense oftheoriaas viewing, speculation, or the contemplative life. For Plato, it is the highest form of human activity; in Aristotle, the chief activity of the First Unmoved Mover and the only practice loved for its own sake. For Hellenic culture, theory was also an ethos that associated love of wisdom with a style of life or mode of existence based on practices of self-examination and self-transformation. A profound incommensurability thus separates our contemporary senses of theory...

  8. 4. The Sage Is Wise Only in Theory
    (pp. 13-17)

    The modern senses of theory gradually emerge through a series of disconnections, reversals, and remappings oftheoria, which extend through scholastic philosophy to the early modern period, where the intimate connection between reason and value in Hellenic culture became increasingly strained and eventually broken. Here philosophy becomes, in various and sometimes incommensurable ways, progressively associated with an idea of science, whether conceived as empirical observation and the inductive work of scientific experimentation or with the more deductive mathematical modeling of nature promoted by Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. From one perspective, this is the story of how science gradually disengages and...

  9. 5. Variations and Discontinuities: Aesthetic
    (pp. 18-27)

    InKeywords, Raymond Williams identifies four primary senses of the word “theory” emerging by the seventeenth century: spectacle; a contemplated sight; a scheme of ideas; and an explanatory scheme. Although the persistence of associating thought about art or film with theory might be attributed to the derivations of the term from spectating and spectacle, a contemporary commonsensical notion follows from the last two meanings. Theories seek to explain, usually by proposing concepts, but in this they are often distinguished from doing or practice. In this manner, Williams synthesizes “a scheme of ideas which explains practice,” and this is certainly close...

  10. 6. How Art Found Theory
    (pp. 27-36)

    By 1892, the modern sense of aesthetic solidified enough in English to become the subject of Bernard Bosanquet’sA History of Aesthetic. Bosanquet characterizes his study as a “history of aesthetic consciousness” in which, from antiquity to the present day, the evolution of philosophical expression exists as “the clear and crystallized form of the aesthetic consciousness or sense of beauty.”27To be able to write a history of aesthetic in the late nineteenth century already implies, first, an assumption of the stability and universality of the experience and value of beauty. At the same time, it is also a forgetting...

  11. 7. Philosophy before the Arts
    (pp. 37-54)

    By the 1820s, aesthetics had discovered metaphysical ambitions that went beyond questions of perception or the beautiful in general. In the same era, however, theory fell out of fashion, or rather was folded into a larger conception of the philosophy of art, sometimes referred to as aKunstlehre, the title given to A. W. Schlegel’s Jena and Berlin lectures of 1797–1798 and 1801–1804. In his 1829Lectures on Aesthetic, K. W. F. Solger characterizes his position as “a philosophical doctrine of the beautiful, or better, a philosophical doctrine of art”(eine philosophische Lehre vom Schönen, oder besser eine...

  12. 8. The Rarity of Theory
    (pp. 54-66)

    In Hegel, philosophy is not the mirror of nature, but rather the mirror of consciousness endlessly reflected in art. Now we can only look back ironically at Hegel’s claim that art has come to an end. Even Hegel realized that the system of philosophy may not yet be complete, for humanity still has need of art even if only to inspire the prose of thought. Moreover, the admission that art can inspire only a theoretical relation, not a philosophical one, is a tacit confession that the Romantic era had not fulfilled its historical promise in either poetry or philosophy. Unable...

  13. 9. On the History of Film Theory
    (pp. 66-72)

    Theory is a vista composed of many layers, and our view of it is oriented by many competing frames. Obtaining a clearer picture of theory means neither choosing a different frame nor drawing a more refined sketch or taking a different perspective, but rather remaining open to the complexity of its past and present movements.

    InThe Virtual Life of Film, I argued that one powerful consequence of the rapid emergence of electronic and digital media is that we can no longer take for granted what “film” is—its ontological anchors have come ungrounded—and thus we are compelled to...

  14. 10. Genres of Theory
    (pp. 72-80)

    To make these layers distinct again, it may be useful to picture the emergence of film aesthetics in the twentieth century from the perspective of three more or less discontinuous and open genres. It is tempting to think of the history of film aesthetics as a sequence of thirty-year periods—1915 to 1947 for classical, 1947 to 1968 for modern, and 1968 to 1996 for contemporary film theory. But this approach disregards the important overlaps, retentions and returns, irregular continuities, all the dotted lines, straight and curving, that thread through these three discursive series. For reasons that should soon be...

  15. 11. Excursus: Ricciotto Canudo and the Aesthetic Discourse
    (pp. 80-89)

    Ricciotto Canudo’s writings on film exemplify the aesthetic discourse in many ways as well as the philosophical background of idealist aesthetics before Walter Benjamin’s work of the 1930s. At the same time, Canudo’s voluminous critical writings on cinema are exemplary of the openness of the discursive genre of classical film theory. Canudo was an Italian expatriate who settled in Paris in 1901 at the age of twenty-five. A scholar, writer, and literary entrepreneur, friend of Apollinaire and D’Annunzio, Canudo founded a movement called “Cérébrisme” and from 1913 to 1914 edited an important art journal calledMontjoie!that advocated “French imperialism”...

  16. 12. On the Way to Language
    (pp. 89-96)

    Arguing in 1922 that the cinema is an art that must not resemble any other, for it is unlike any other, Canudo fully deploys conceptual criteria that define the horizon wherein the aesthetic discourse curves back upon itself. Contrariwise, the openness of the genre is assured because the historical persistence of this discourse is challenged and undermined by the very objects it is trying to define, limit, or construct. From Canudo through Benjamin, the more one tries to defend film as Art through the conceptual vocabulary of system aesthetics, the more film, as Benjamin so eloquently put the case, redefines...

  17. 13. The Travels of Formalism
    (pp. 96-111)

    Rereading the first preface to Wellek and Warren’s 1949Theory of Literature, one cannot ignore their doubts and hesitations and at the same time their elation over the possible senses of theory. The book begins with a naming crisis. The authors are unsure of how to characterize the object of their enterprise, no less than the range of activities and concepts that might be covered by a “theory of.” The senses of theory seem open and difficult to denominate. “Even a proper ‘short title,’ ‘Theory of Literature and Methodology of Literary Study,’ would be too cumbersome,” they admit. “Before the...

  18. 14. An Uncertain and Irrational Art
    (pp. 112-130)

    Two fundamental lines converge in the 1960s to produce “theory” as a discursive formation or genre: first, the directive idea of filmology that positivism guides every discipline applied to the “scientific” study of art, and second, a transformation of the conceptual framework of the human sciences effected by the increasing dominance of structuralism. The latter especially would be deeply influenced by a concept of theory forged by the travels of Formalism in the 1930s and 1940s. In both cases, the disciplines of linguistics, anthropology, and sociology took precedence in the study of art and literature with the problem of language...

  19. 15. A Small History of Structuralism
    (pp. 131-152)

    In his necrology for Étienne Souriau written in 1980, Christian Metz asserts thatl’Univers filmique, published in 1951, remains one of the most indispensable works on cinema ever written. Although filmology was at that time almost forgotten in France and hardly known in anglophone countries, with characteristic generosity Metz foregrounds links between filmology, structuralism, and film semiology that are often forgotten in accounts of the postwar film period. Among the most important connections was Souriau’s role with Cohen-Séat in opening the French academy to the study of cinema. (Metz’s own role in the 1960s and 1970s will be no less...

  20. 16. After the Long Eclipse
    (pp. 152-159)

    In his fascinating reassessment of filmology in France, “L’aventure filmologique,” Martin Lefebvre unearths an intriguing document—a proposal for athèse d’Étatsubmitted by a young researcher at the Centre Nationale de Recherches Scientifiques (CNRS) who proposes to extend the filmological project into a new domain more or less ignored by the movement itself, what he calls “filmolinguistics.” Admitted to the French linguistics section of the CNRS in 1962, this young scholar was Christian Metz. This project, which would result in the publication in 1971 of one of Metz’s most compelling and difficult works,Language and Cinema,demonstrates that while...

  21. 17. An Object, a Method, a Domain
    (pp. 160-168)

    Discourse, then, is in the air at the same time as the first canons of aesthetic writing on film are being collected and organized. It is not clear that Metz viewed the initial phase of his work as contributing to a (semiological) theory of film so much as appealing to film as a problem in the transition from linguistics to a general science of signs. Metz will thus regroup and reconfigure the canon of film theory as constituted by Aristarco and others to include film semiology as a necessary stage toward developing a “scientific” problem and attendant vocabulary, in which...

  22. 18. A Care for the Claims of Theory
    (pp. 168-200)

    Metz’s concern with method in the introduction toLanguage and Cinemais already on full display in “Le cinéma: Langue ou langage?” Throughout the 1960s, it is fascinating how Metz seems so concerned with mapping out and clarifying the variety of epistemological frameworks within which film study takes place, as if in his first published essay he needs to create a new mode of existence in film and in theory. The essay is both manifesto and methodological statement, dividing and ascribing tasks, probing and defining concepts, and laying out positions of address. More important, it wants to explore the conditions...

  23. 19. The Sense of an Ending
    (pp. 200-207)

    InThe Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault wisely notes that the closer in time one stands to a discursive formation, the more difficult it is to evaluate it conceptually. The threshold of existence of a new discourse, he writes, “is established by the discontinuity that separates us from what we can no longer say, and from that which falls outside our discursive practice; it begins with the outside of our own language; its locus is the gap between our own discursive practices.”124Perhaps the contours, scale, dimension, and volume of a discourse become apparent only once one no longer occupies...

  24. 20. “Suddenly, an Age of Theory”
    (pp. 207-214)

    I have strayed somewhat from the task of accounting for the continuities and discontinuities of the passage from the discourse of signification to that of ideology and culturalism. And other puzzlements await, such as how to imagine what comes after “contemporary” film theory and how to evaluate a post-Theoretical moment in film and media studies, or the arts and humanities. I have no intention here of writing even a short history of contemporary film theory. (How can one define the “contemporary,” such a paradoxical concept? Is it not the present we eternally occupy and the near future that hovers just...

  25. 21. The Fifth Element
    (pp. 214-231)

    InThe Crisis of Political Modernism, I suggest that the contemporary moment of film theory coincides with the emergence of a set of questions and problems that at the time were felt to be both urgent and new. In turning to the concept of ideology, and the possibility of opposing ideology with a scientific or “theoretical practice,” film studies began to discover itself in theory, and to reorient and define itself in relation to a left tradition of art and cultural criticism.

    The emergence of semiology as the study of the social life of signs was linked early on to...

  26. 22. “A Struggle without End, Exterior and Interior”
    (pp. 232-246)

    Kristeva’s concept of negativity and her implied concept of theory are not only key components of contemporary film theory; in many respects, the dialectic of negativity and the reflexive critical force of theory can be understood as fueling the historical structure of Theory itself in its movements from unification to disaggregation. One of the great paradoxes of Theory—the source of both its powers and its miseries—is that it is driven from within by internal contradiction. As in the Hegelian dialectic, negativity drives the discourse forward, causing it to ramify and expand by producing new concepts and seeking out...

  27. 23. Becoming a Subject in Theory
    (pp. 246-266)

    Understanding fully Althusser’s influence on contemporary theory and the discourse of ideology requires a shift in historical perspective with respect to standard accounts. Contemporary film theory turned to Althusser primarily for a theory of ideology and its critique. But in a way not dissimilar from my discussion of the introduction to Hegel’sAesthetic, Althusser’s broader project throughout the 1960s was to reassert the importance of philosophy for Marxism, and to separate and clarify conceptually the relationship between theory, philosophy, and science. This is the reason why I have stressed Althusser’s place in the field of epistemology.

    One way to look...

    (pp. 267-270)
  29. INDEX
    (pp. 271-281)