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Film Studies in Search of the Object1 Thomas Elsaesser, 1992 If I understand what is at stake, it is perhaps nothing less than

n whether the cinema can continue to be at the core of a coherent research project, by which is meant a distinct area of knowledge as well as an academic discipline. That the question can be asked at all is a tribute to the modest success which in the 1970s and 1980s assured film studies something of a privileged place in the universities. That is has to be asked means that past success and present disenchantment - if that is what it is - has to be seen in context. I shall sketch one such context, as it affects my own work, located at crosscurrents: having been actively involved in the formation of British film culture in the 1960s, and having been one of the first to 'institutionalize' (yes, this is the proper word) film studies at a British university, while drawing on French and German intellectual traditions; having been in dialogue and exchange with the academic community in the United States, while now charged to repeat some of this institutionalizing work in one of the leading Universities of continental Europe. One might begin by noting a certain a-symmetry between the scholar's construction of the cinema as object, and the cinema's existence in the culture at large, shaped by a dynamic in which academic work plays no part. What is striking about the latter is the degree to which the cinema seems to have suffered a loss of autonomy over the past twenty years. As movie theatres have become showcases for stories and spectacles also exploited by other entertainment industries (above all, by television and the music business), the films themselves while, still the prime experience seem to have difficulty in retaining their status as texts, no longer commanding their own space and closure. Not only has the sequel become a prominent feature of mainstream film production: other aggregate states -material and discursive- of the commodity cinema are much in evidence. Television gives films and film culture the kind of oxygen that has transformed their very nature, and given that the cost of the average American blockbuster stills buys a medium-sized office block in most European capitals, it is not surprising that such a film takes up much space (and makes up in space what it no longer occupies in memorable time), as it percolates through our audio-visual and print environment. Yet, during the same period the cinema also attained a new specificity as a theoretical object, precisely by scholars abandoning the search for a cinematic essence. Semiology, linguistics and formalism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction and feminist theory have been mobilized in order to come to grips with the cinema's status as a distinct mode of signification. Now, in turn, photography, art history, women's studies, cultural studies (and, to a lesser degree, literary criticism) show the influence of film studies on its own problematics, be it the question of realism, close textual analysis, the study of narrative and narration, or questions about subjectivity, sexual difference, spectatorship. Whether this intensity of the cinema's theorization already contains a keen knowledge of an irrevocable historical loss is a moot point. The paradox is worth stating, if only because it underlines an ever more sharply marked discrepancy between the most intellectually interesting work done in film studies, and what one might, borrowing the

current password, call 'the market'. Scholarly work in film has, for some time, been hyper-conscious of the need to engage with arguments emerging from already constituted debates, generating from these discourses insights that either are not specific to film, or that help to transcend the horizon (historical, theoretical) set by the study of the cinema as traditionally understood. Insofar as it has been author- and text-oriented, film studies was determined by a literary hermeneutics. But in the wider context of the cinema becoming a theoretical object (as opposed to a cultural reference point), film theory became influential in the humanities mainly to the degree that it was able to construct a theory out of the brilliant insights of a Jean-Louis Comolli or a Jean-Louis Baudry, reworking old chestnuts such as technology and technique, realism and reality effect. After being taken up, systematized, applied and popularized by Christian Metz, Raymond Bellour, Laura Mulvey, Stephen Heath and others, these insights and their implications for narrative, subjectivity, gender offered a whole 'Weltanschauung'. Insofar as one can speak of a crisis, it is these moves that are no longer felt to be compelling. Their force and productiveness depended on positing the cinematic apparatus, narrative, sexual difference as interlocking and mutually reinforcing manifestations of the same Symbolic (be it bourgeois ideology, capitalism, patriarchy). If, for a time, the material differences within this Symbolic could be suppressed, in favour of identifying the transcendental subject in whose mirror of mis-cognition the spectator was constituted, the discussions around gendered subjectivity increasingly rejected the totalizing claims of the psycho-semiotic model. At the same time, concepts of the gendered viewer/constituted subject appeared a-historical, requiring more detailed investigation of spectatorship, in the context of the cinema's place in consumer culture. Research in these fields has unearthed much fascinating material, but one wonders whether it has challenged paradigms, often returning to older, less sophisticated notions of subjectivity, class, or ethnic identity. What it has challenged is nonetheless clear: both the concern with gender/ representation and the new historicism (to which I shall return) show a retreat from the text, an unwillingness or impossibility of holding in place the single film as a sole or even primary object of analysis. Psycho-semiology and the new film history can in fact both be understood as reactions to the individualized oeuvre, preferring textual ensembles or generalizable signifying practices in one case, and in the other, investigating the conditions and occasions - the discourses and disposifs - that have enabled the production, exhibition and consumption of films. Yet these reactions, each in its way, seem only to have aggravated the 'crisis' by depriving film studies of an agreed object, and of its most recognizable pedagogic practice within a humanities curriculum: textual analysis. There is no mystery about how this demotion of the film as text has come about. In the first instance, it is of course wrong to say that the cinema's loss of autonomy is a recent phenomenon. An individual film has never been a discrete textual object, except in the hushed atmosphere of a cinema d'art et essai, in the pages of serious film magazines, or in the University's textual analysis seminars in front of a moviola. In the second instance, it is often forgotten that promoting the single film as part of an 'oeuvre' was itself an ideological and political move: film culture since WWII had worked hard to give

films this status, polemically excluding those features which made film viewing and cinema entertainment since its beginnings a social or economic event. The argument behind the recent revival of film history ('revisionist film history') emphasizing the industrial context of production, patterns of exhibition, advertising strategies, censorship is thus in a sense merely the swing of the pendulum: today's archaeological work on all the discourses which have made films both intelligible and pleasurable to historically specific viewers may yet turn out to be 'the return of the repressed' with a vengeance. For this 'materialist' film history is itself a product of the success of film theory, standing in binary opposition to what it tends to displace (the focus on the filmic text), insofar as its reaction to the monolithic theoretical formulations about the cinematic apparatus, narrative, ideology and spectator-positioning, appears to have itself produced a kind of monolithic master-discourse: that of economic determinism. Here too, however, one needs to make distinctions. The dissenting film history of a Noel Burch, returning to the 'primitives' and early cinema, saw itself initially as a continuation of and in dialogue with Comolli's and Baudry's work on technology and ideology. The work of Douglas Gomery, Robert C Allen, Janet Staiger -also initially in dialogue with Comolli, Lebel and others- may have developed along more classical 'Marxist' lines about monopoly capitalism, in many ways reminiscent of the writings about Hollywood by economic historians in the late 30s/ early 40s (Klingender, Legg, Huettig). On the other hand, if the New historians' underlying assumptions can be criticised as deterministic, we must not overlook the extent to which their questions have opening up new kinds of evidence as pertinent and relevant to an understanding of the cinema: business files, law suits over patents, cinema architecture, urban demographics, trade magazines and exhibitors' catalogues. Their work thus satisfies one of the ground rules of an academic discipline: that it can open up new research tasks where 'more work needs to be done'. And if Gomery sometimes quite explicitly and polemically devalues filmic evidence as a source of historical insight, Burch along with Barry Salt, Ben Brewster, Tom Gunning, Charles Musser have posed questions about the films themselves: as historical objects, as commodities and as 'texts'. For despite the evidence accumulated by the new film history that the cinema, or at any rate, the American cinema, has behaved like any other capitalist industry this century, such knowledge is insufficient for approaching the social and historical role of the cinema. Industrial and technological analysis, and even the history of spectatorship and consumption may take one a long way away from the films. But they also bring one right back to them: all this economic and discursive activity would not exist without spectators hungry for stories and images, for sights and sounds arranged, combined and organized in particular ways. There is thus an argument to be made that film history, as it leads us away from the film text, moves us closer to it, but not to its material or commodity existence. Instead, it is its existence in an individual or cultural imaginary (its aesthetics, its form, its coherence, its ideology) that demands attention. This a-symmetry rejoins my earlier one, about the discrepancy between the cinema as a theoretical object and its historical transformations towards new audiences, different pleasures. One might even say that the move away from the text in academic film studies stands in a not always critically reflected contrast to the way film and the

cinema have survived and are surviving elsewhere in the culture. Never has the cinema been more popular: thanks to TV and the VCR, to the successes of the American cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, colonizing outer space, inner space and virtual space, and thus opening up all our space-time coordinates to new narratives, blurring and criss-crossing the boundaries between inside and outside, the animate and inanimate, human and beast, human and machine, creating new images, new bodies in a kind of profusion not known since Greek mythology or the times of Hieronymus Bosch. In a parallel (but is it parallel?) development, if we look at publishing, at the books that are being bought by large number of people, we find mostly the academically discredited genres of film literature topping the list. Star biographies and personality studies, an accumulation of trivia and positivist data for cult and fan audiences, simple-minded linear histories of the cinema, of special effects and genres, coffee table books of glamour photographs and movie stills, calendar and poster art. The star image, the narrative image of a movie still, the fetishistic evocation of 'classics' in pop videos, the makeover of performers like Madonna in the pose of every movie queen and pin up idol, the cut-and-paste, compositing, sampling way that pop appropriates the cultural heritage, shared by everyone, instantly recognizable, evocative, seductive. One would therefore have to conclude that the crisis in film theory, and the status of the cinema as an object of research stands in direct proportion to there being a crisis in the cinema itself, except that the latter is a crisis only by virtue of the rapidity, apparent anarchy and explosive force with which the so-called media and information 'revolutions' have swept the cinema along with them. Film studies necessarily needs to historicise its object, once one is aware of how TV, the VCR, the computer, the block buster movie have reshaped cinema (implying, among others, the economic - and in Britain, cultural - disappearance of an art cinema, of the avant-garde- and counter-cinemas that were once so important as the legitimation for the 'serious' study of the cinema). When sensing the 'end' of the classic binary pairs (Hollywood/art cinema), it is tempting to go back to the beginnings. This is no doubt one of the many reasons why the study of early cinema has made such an impact in Anglo-American film studies. In returning to the 'origins', for instance, one comes up against a pre-classical cinema which oddly resembles post-classical cinema: domestic viewing alongside public exhibition, battles over technological, industry-wide standards, a promiscuity of performative and narrative modes, a highly segmented flow and a confusing proliferation of cultural and media intertexts, the importance of marketing and of the patterns of consumption for shaping the (reading of the) texts. As a result, it may well be that classical cinema our own standard and reference point for so many years- will appear the exception, a moment of relative stability in a much more porous and fluid ('media-') history. If this history is the object of research, the question arises where this history might be centred, or what discipline best articulates it. Many of my colleagues have opted for making television/video their main concern. But before one takes TV as paradigmatic for studying all media, including the cinema, other contenders for inheriting film studies want to be considered: hot on the heels of television studies are cultural studies (representation, participation and reading strategies in popular culture), and a more amorphous body of theory ('postmodernism') poised to transform, disperse or devour

the others. In Britain, the controversies and debates between film theory ('Screen theory') and cultural studies (the 'Birmingham School') have been immensely influential in setting the agenda for television studies (and prizing it away from media sociology and communication studies), but it has all but deprived film studies of a separately defined identity. Cultural studies has also tried to define for the popular a specific form of aesthetic production (genre, the formulaic, the stereotype, pastiche, intertextuality, irony), exploring subcultures' relation to style, or returning to Levi-Straussian bricolage and Michel de Certeau's idea of 'tactical knowledge'. Cultural studies thus seems to make good the demand to pay attention to the materiality and heterogeneity of the Symbolic that film theory identified too monolithically. Aiming to rescue the popular-asprogressive from radical theory's disenchantment with both high culture and massentertainment, it has, for instance, tried to document the sophistication and discrimination (the traditional hallmarks of educated taste) of popular reading strategies, as well as their subversive, interventionist and deconstructive potential. It has made axiomatic what in film studies remained contested territory: that cultural production is 'post-production', the appropriation and transformation of already existing texts, discourses, of ready-mades. In other words, it abandoned the production-oriented model, along with its heroic-modernist version of authorship, of criture, enunciating instance.2 This shift of focus in Britain and the US is itself a consequence of a historical realization: that it had become impossible to speak 'about' the media, but only to speak from 'within' the media. If this looked like a move that would abandon any critical stance (be it that of the Frankfurt School, or of Althussers Marxism), it had in actual fact the opposite effect: it was the transcendental subject -and thus the spectator constructed by the text- that was abandoned, in favour of a paradigm that asked what the spectator does with the text, rather than what the text does with the spectator. While in Great Britain this paradigm is associated with cultural studies, which has on the whole refused both Saussurean and Lacanian influences, in France (and to some extent also in the United States), it goes by the name of pragmatics, sometimes understanding itself as an extension of Metzian psychosemiotics (Roger Odin, Francesco Casetti), while in the US, cognitivism and pragmatics have set themselves up as alternatives to Metzian semiotics, not as its continuation (David Bordwell, Noel Carroll). Yet in this very dispersal across cultural studies, pragmatics or cognitivism, film studies may indeed find a new definition of its purpose. All of them marginalize what for the cinema has been central: the photographic image. And if Metz' question 'to understand how films are understood' (fertile though it was) was probably in the end too modest an agenda to sustain a whole academic discipline, it was he who first raised the problematic of the image in its full complexity. Ever since his rereading of Bazin, the image has been the ontologically and semiologically most contested concept (suffice it to mention Umberto Eco's intervention and his advice to abandon the very notion of image). But as long as celluloid was its only basis, the image retained a physicality whose deceptiveness the electronic media underline from an altogether non-academic perspective. In front of the computer, for instance, no-one speaks of images: only of

graphics and animation. As Raymond Bellour has pointed out, it is no coincidence that Metz, Nam Jun Paik and Jean Luc Godard are contemporaries. With images reaching us as the analogue video signal, and more recently, in a digitized form that is indifferent to its material manifestation, it becomes difficult, and therefore once more necessary, to think of the image. Now it is not so much the reality-effect, but the materiality-effect of the cinema that is at stake, and with it, the questions of film theory, of the apparatus, of ideology and subjectivity may need to be rethought. More simply, and ending up once more on a personal note, the place of the cinema in my research resolves itself into the question of the fate of the image in our culture, its fragility, falsifiability, vulnerability. To that extent, the crisis speaks to my side as archivist, my sense of film scholars being in some sense the guardians of a heritage of images, whether it is a matter of preserving extant prints, and treating each one as an 'original', or whether it affects the way we now look at all films as documents which speak of things they did not necessarily intend to speak of: becoming fictions, in the way even a documentary is the mise-en-scene of an imaginary) and documentaries, in the way even a fiction film leaves the residue and imprint of a material culture, of moments of a lived life, a physical presence. One might even want to put into play Metz' 'strong' reading of Saussure ('in order to understand a film at all, I must perceive the photographed object as absent, the photograph as present, and the presence of this absence as signifying'), against Roland Barthes' meditations on temporality and materiality of the photograph. For what finally animates my research is the belief that the cinema has a particular place in human history mainly through its relation to material culture, which is to say through its relation to the existence of objects and bodies in time and space, in this time and this space. With the cinema, this material culture and thus the life it records, becomes fatally intertwined with the cinema's role in making these objects, bodies and spaces signify, which is to say, dispensable, exchangeable. The paradox of the cinema, its metaphysical core, so to speak, is that it destroys what it rescues and rescues what it helps to destroy. Torn between these options, I have no choice but to support them both. NOTES:
1. A version of this paper was first published under the title 'Etat de la recherche et place du cinema' in Hors Cadre (Paris) no 10, 1992. 2. I have written on this at greater length elsewhere. See my 'Television through the Looking Glass' Quarterly Review of Film and Video vol 14, no 1-2, 1992.