Sunday, 6 July 2008

David Bordwell and French Theory

"(Grand Theory is) a trend that dodges the task to which we thought academics had pledged their professional lives: producing knowledge that is reliable and approximately true." (Bordwell, 3)

"(The task of academics) is to continually analyze, reconsider, and mistrust the question at hand." (Cusset, 157)


The selection of film books in the English language sections of the large chains here is fairly limited, but one advantage of this is that you tend to buy the few books that do stand out. Also, I've gravitated back to more philosophical and theoretical texts that I normally don't have time for (lots of time on the subway helps as well). As a result, I have recently bought and read two fairly large and extremely divergent studies: David Bordwell's Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2008) and Francois Cusset's French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (Translated by Jeff Fort) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

Poetics of Cinema (an homage to Russian formalism) is a collection of essays, many published previously, including the 1979 piece "Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice" (which includes a new Afterword). There are fifteen pieces in all, divided into three sections: I Questions of Theory (two essays) ; II Studies in Narrative (5 essays); III Studies in Style (eight essays). It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows Bordwell that the studies in narrative and style heavily outweigh any kind of theoretical discussion. It should also be no shock that the first section is burdened by the usual anti-theory Bordwellian axe-grinding. Even so, the rhetoric on display here is more heavy-handed than usual.

Two examples:

"Attorneys, legal researchers, and forensic scientists have used DNA evidence to free unjustly imprisoned people. Warnings about global change come from the united efforts of biologists, geographers, geologists, and other experts. Medical professionals struggle to eradicate HIV and cancer, and some risk their lives to inoculate children in the inferno of war. It's shameful for comfortable academics to believe that these heroes labor under a flawed epistemology." (5)

"If we invited today's postmodern academics to come up with reliable ways to represent airplane maneuvers, I shudder to think what casualties would result. But maybe not, at least once the researchers got off the ground. If there are no atheists in foxholes, then perhaps there are no culturalists in cockpits." (82)

These two statements reveal, despite his previous objections, the conservative nature of Bordwell's thinking. The very metaphors he chooses are telling. The first quote has the form of "support our troops" logic, and the "no atheists in foxholes" quote is pure religious nonsense that Bordwell accepts as a truism to make his own equally ridiculous "common sense" homily. That such absurd straw man arguments are marshaled out is telling of the type of scholar Bordwell has become. As strong as some of his work is (and most of the essays in this collection are well worth reading, despite the lack of real critical insight), there are other contextual factors for explaining his academic stardom. Someone like Roger Ebert admires Bordwell not only for his scholarship but because of his anti-theory diatribes. For Ebert, "film theory has nothing to do with film" and as a result views Bordwell as the savior of a Film Studies discipline that have distorted the ordinary pleasures of movie-going. And of course, Bordwell returns the favour and quotes in praise of Ebert, despite the utterly pedestrian criticism Ebert dispenses.

In addition to the above quotations, Bordwell includes more subtle argumentation. He talks about "mature" disciplines (22) (which theory dominated Film Studies is not), the "egos" of filmmakers contradicting the reflectionist view of culture (31) (a la Michael Medved), and the "natural" form of inquiry that his method represents. Furthermore, Bordwell contrasts his approach with the theorists' goal of simply "getting a buzz". Embedded in the very language of Bordwell is a deeply conservative idea of what culture and scholarship should be. As a result, he does not mind throwing red meat like the quotes above for the deeply anti-academic press to enjoy. He is one "comfortable academic" who knows his place, and is even more "comfortable" than most because of it.

Francois Cusset's French Theory (first published in French in 2003) offers a far more balanced view. But the book is much more. It is an incredibly detailed and relatively succinct intellectual history of American academia over the past few decades. Cusset explains the goal of his study as follows:

"To explore the political and intellectual genealogy, and the effects, even for us and up to today, of a creative misunderstanding between French texts and American readers, a properly structural misunderstanding -- in the sense that it does not refer simply to a misinterpretation, but to differences of internal organization between the French and American intellectual spheres." (5)

Maybe the only similarity between Poetics of Cinema and French Theory is the organization. Cusset divides his text into fourteen chapters (plus an introduction and conclusion) and organizes these chapters into three sections: "Part I. The Invention of a Corpus"; "Part II. The Uses of Theory"; and "Part III. There and Back". One of Cusset's main points, and one that has not been sufficiently explored, is how French Theory became as widespread within American universities, especially when the same authors were so out of favour in their own country. Drawing quite frequently on Pierre Bourdieu, Cusset grounds such figures as Foucault and Derrida in the particular fields of knowledge of the American context.

Although Cusset does not provide the type of critique that would be popular with the mainstream press, his perspective is critical of the type of excesses that have plagued the theory-centered humanities (for example, his introduction addresses the infamous "Sokal affair"). But more importantly, it is also deeply knowledgeable. When Bordwell dismisses "SLAB theory," anyone familiar with the writers cited will realize how superficial Bordwell's understanding really is (of course, it could be, and probably is, a willful misunderstanding). Cusset, however, has a vast and nuanced grasp of a very wide range of theorists, as well as a comprehension of many artist and art practices. Indeed, it would take a very well-read individual to not learn something from this prodigious example of scholarship.

In many ways, French Theory is all about connections, which is something I have a personal affinity for. Although I have read many of the major figures he discusses, I knew less about the history of these careers and the way in which they interceded with the culture at large. Chapter 7, "The Ideological Backlash," is perhaps my favorite in this regard, if the most known to me personally. Here, Cusset links the rise of neo-conservatism with the rise in French theory in the humanities, because neo-con intellectuals were able to caricature cultural relativists and have the public view them as a threat (not unlike Bordwell's anti-culturalist diatribe). This material was known to me primarily through my viewing of the documentary work of British filmmaker Adam Curtis (whose programs I highly recommend). Reading about Leo Strauss and the Committee for Social Thought at University of Chicago, I kept saying the words in my head with a British accent.

I cannot recommend Cusset's book highly enough. If you have knowledge of the intellectual field it will be a richer text, but even if you are not well-versed, it will still provide a fascinating read if you are interested in the subject. I think it will join Martin Jay's Downcast Eyes as essential reading for anyone studying cultural theory. And one need not be a post-structuralist convert to appreciate Cusset's take. Anyone wanting to truly challenge and critique French theory will find more genuine information here than in the mountainous piles of glib anti-theory dismissals like the ones provided by Bordwell. Of course, this may depend on which definition of an academic you find more appealing: someone who produces knowledge that is reliable and true, or someone who analyzes, reconsiders, and mistrusts the evidence at hand.

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