During the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, the noble mission of three broad but then very marginal-to-scandalous discourses and practices—avant-garde, feminism, and theories of the text and subjectivity—was to create more aesthetically and politically satisfying cultures. But seen from the vantage point of the 1980s, the differences among them are painfully clear: the difficulty of locating any subject position for the female spectator in many U.S. avant-garde films and videotapes; the hostility of U.S. critics of avant-garde to contemporary theory; theorists’ shunning of cinema and video in general as mere popular culture or avant-garde work as obscurantist or poorly/badly made; the tendency of many feminist practices to eschew avant-garde work and theory as jargonist elitism while favoring the populism of alternative “positive images”; the focus of feminist film theory (and most film theory) on the construction/use of narrative in classical movies, thereby producing “ruptures” via deconstruction with places for women in virtually any film; the banishment of both word and place of women in many theories of the text and/or subject; and the glaring absence of a social politics in avant-garde practices as well as theory. Along with these differences are the cultural divergences between film and video—recently in realignment but traversing different social and artistic paths, a separatism defended by arguments of ontology through the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s.
Granted these good reasons for acrimony, and with historical and cultural specificity in mind, the intense debates between these then marginal practices have been the liveliest and most fruitful intellectual/political encounters of the past decades. As Barthes remarked, “With intellectual things we produce simultaneously theory, critical combat, and pleasure.”1 And combat is an apt word, not only for avant-garde with its military etymology. There were moments at the Milwaukee film theory conferences from the mid- to late 1970s when speech contained an almost palpable violence. I envisioned a shoot-out between the “humanists” and the “theorists.” The generic labels—avant-garde, theory, and feminism—had specific, oppositional meanings in the 1970s; each faction met with outright hostility or patronizing derision within the academy, although the lines of disputation were drawn differently. It is important to remember the scholastic furor triggered by “theory,” vitriolically attacked by defensive humanists who had read very little of it. Avant-garde films precipitated outraged walkouts due to “senseless” boredom and “meaninglessness,” usually experienced by guilty scholars who had seen few, if any, films.
A mere twelve years have passed since the first of these events and memories. Predictably, the debates have cooled down and defused, with, however, a difference that remains a symptom and a problem. Unlike the generic acceptance of theory and avant-garde as central, defining terms and accepted concepts in the mid-1980s debates, feminism’s centrality and effects, while enacted in mandatory claims by intellectuals to political correctness, are still contained by denial, acts of disavowal. Yes, feminism was important, but it is over, history; feminism is now acclaimed, even victorious, but old hat, something so apparent and achieved by now that further arguments are unnecessary.
As Barthes argued, “we subject the objects of knowledge and discussion—as in any art—no longer to an instance of truth, but to a consideration of effects.”2 This crucial displacement of “truth,” promulgated by humanities professors, from center stage by questions of reception, effectivity, subjectivity, and the conceptualization of audiences is occurring in theory and in pedagogy. In our arguments, the formerly acknowledged but artificial or illusory divisions between art and mass culture no longer cohere; the demarcations among media have been elided, just as efforts to taxonomize work into, for example, narrative or not have been abandoned.
This book will consider some effects on avant-garde film and video of the collision/collusion with contemporary theory. (One notable effect was Peter Gidal’s 1978 declaration, in an impassioned debate with Jean Louis Comolli, translated/mediated by Stephen Heath, that representation of women was impossible given the sexist baggage of connotation which their images had historically accumulated.) Theoretical discourses imported into the United States during this twenty-year span—for example, those of Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari—will mark detours. The significant coupling in film theory of Freud with Jacques Lacan (and, minimally here, Marx with Louis Althusser) will insistently return, inflected by feminist interpretations.
Specific analyses of films and videotapes—perhaps unfamiliar and thus disengaging moments of lag—will suggest the transverse relation between theory and avant-garde, mutually inflected by context. That avant-garde works are, in themselves, theories of space, time, and culture is a primary assumption. My excursive remarks have no pretensions of being comprehensive or an overview of this complex, rich, and feisty cultural period. I merely want to analyze a few films and videotapes through and in tandem with historically coincident theories. I prefer foraging through texts, picking and choosing ideas rather than marshaling great systems, anticipating my arrival and returning later to the same issues. Like the Soviet constructivists and Sally Potter, I prefer the spiral which allows revisions rather than a straight and dogged line. Rather than the grand and pithy summary of others’ writing, often a flat, dull reduction, I prefer quotations, a tactic which retains a variety of styles, intonations, and, I hope, accuracy. I try to let others speak for themselves, although I imagine myself in dialogue. Many of the scattered quotations are rich with ideas I cherish but do not dissect. Fragments have always interested me, perhaps explaining my attraction to Barthes. Partial, angled, kaleidoscopic views intrigue me while omniscient visions raise an anxiety of “truth” and “power.” Questions and contradictions which continue to transform with the hindsight of history and the humility of age, unexpectedly flipping over to reveal the other side of the proposition, reveal more to me than answers, explaining my continuing interest in Freud, who argued through contradictions.
I have left out analyses of many films and videos which I have studied in detail for the simple reason of presumed unfamiliarity as well as the current fashion of criticism: metaphorical proclamation about the state of culture, supported by brief, wide-ranging citations as documented assertions, rather than detailed, textual explication is the postmodern, academic style. The list of absentees includes films by Peter Kubelka, Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits, Ernie Gehr, Barry Gerson, along with the earlier films of Rainer. Although I refer to Brakhage, I do not analyze any film in detail; P. Adams Sitney and Annette Michelson have already studied his work in depth. That I arranged encounters between avant-garde artists and scholars of theory (and history) at the Milwaukee conferences with my cohorts Stephen Heath and Teresa de Lauretis, as well as importing many filmmakers to show their work throughout a fifteen-year period, should be noted, along with the fact that many of the protagonists of these debates are my acquaintances and friends. Hence I write with some neutrality qualified by firsthand experience.
There is an argument and historical trajectory: the move, for women, from the late 1960s and 1970s paradoxes of “sexual liberation” (including being a sexual partner for the nomadic artist—permanently as wife, great mother, business manager, and general caretaker or transiently as postscreening reward, plucked from various audiences on tour) to the 1980s recognition of female subjectivity is of critical significance, a shift from being a desirable, supportive object to becoming a speaking subject, artist, or writer. Accompanying this inclusion has been an expansion(ism) of the binary model of difference to include racial, cultural, and chronological as well as sexual differences—collisions productive of knowledge. In the scholastic move to cultural studies, intertextual and contextual differences must be added to the list. As Foucault pointed out, differences, like power and pleasure, can be beneficial, productive as well as prohibitive. Contradictions can provide openings as well as functioning as containments. (“Difference” as a theoretical concept might have lost all meaning in its conclusive grasp, with its opposition, “indifference,” assuming currency, gaining ascendancy; if everything is difference, then only indifference is argument.)
Other seismic cultural shifts include the moves from pop art to postmodernism, from counter-to consumer culture, from process to product, from film to video, from cinema to television, from underground to academic, from politics to therapy, and from protest to worship. The social landscape has remarkably changed to conservative, high-fashion, sports car politics. The theoretical object beneath avant-garde, “bourgeois culture,” has swerved from the left to the right. Like a lumbering behemoth, debates regarding avant-garde remain ploddingly, familially constant, the same spokespersons dragging their by now representative bodies to the podium or into the fray yet again to defend their maligned avocation, as yet unsanctioned by history or art. This ahistorical constancy of avant-garde as something you can count on, art that is “there for you,” is precisely not avant-garde.
Let me parenthetically digress to the personal: from being nurturing curators, critics, and applauding fans for scholars and artists alike (functions which I, like many women behind the avant-garde and theory scenes, have performed as “hostess”—organizer, fund raiser, party giver, chauffeur, and innkeeper; I shudder when I remember how many events I arranged rather than writing), women are claiming their on- and off-screen work; this emerging shift in power has altered the edifice of independent film and video; the effects of feminism on film theory have been virtually definitive.
Indeed, it could be argued that by not heeding women and feminism (along with other oppositional marginalities, such as race and ethnicity), the male-dominated U.S. avant-garde made a critical error, losing a golden opportunity to maintain its radical impulse, eventually falling into a familiar, tired patriarchy, however marginal, nonprofitable, or artistic. In addition, the avant-garde’s stated disdain toward analyzing popular culture (particularly in many artists’ other role as teacher) reeked of elitism, albeit a long-haired, stoned, hippy figuration. Continental theory (which unbalanced the entrenched conventions of the classical text, along with unsettling the hierarchy of intellectual power, letting women into the debates) was ignored or disparaged. Favoring art as countercultural life-style fostered by drugs, random sex, booze, and introspective individuality, many artists seemed to be trapped in a time warp—living out the turn-of-the-century dream of romanticism rather than engaging with emergent voices, including the knowledge of mass culture held by their audiences and students. That mass culture, particularly television, has rearranged everyday life, politics, and culture in the United States, altering perception and reception, was rarely considered.
When seen historically and in relation to audiences’ learned conventions of either the classical Hollywood cinema or the European narrative avant-garde, the films were, and continue to be, aesthetically, formally radical, frequently upsetting. (At the end of a screening of Snow’s La Region Centrale at a Milwaukee conference, Jean-Francois Lyotard and I were the only people left in the audience of initially over one hundred scholars; the glass on the theater door had been shattered from the many slams of angry viewers; I have encountered glowing references to this film by writers who walked out on it in rage.) The garb and context of protest and the counterculture, including an opposition to commodity culture simply labeled “Hollywood,” suggested a political radicalism as well. Thus, a paradox (comparable to the premises of the counterculture) was operative: while the work was modern or postmodern, the intellectual premises, including the enshrinement of the suffering male artist laboriously producing the precious art object, smacked of the nineteenth century and romanticism. While hanging out with scruffy student converts and smoking pot at what seemed like a twenty-year traveling party, eating health foods, wearing Birkenstock sandals, and on the road with only a knapsack and cans of 16mm films, New York, MOMA, the Whitney, and fame were ever-present goals. I love Robert Nelson’s still incredulous description of his instant fame and artistic status: one review by Jonas Mekas of Oh Dem Watermelons and he was virtually an overnight sensation on the circuit. All of this while he was having fun with his friend William Wiley by making off-the-cuff films.
There was a star system, indeed (with a coastal bias—New York being slightly superior to San Francisco and Chicago). Although success was not measured by money, cars, houses, and designer fashion, it was embodied in famous names and landmark films, and fueled by gossip; word of new work spread in a flash via a private network of aficionados; filmmakers’ reputations verbally and intimately preceded them. We knew about Owen Land’s parsimonious spending habits, as well as his various spiritual conversions; Paul Sharit’s courting of violence, his brushes with death, worried his friends. However, there was a significant difference from the Hollywood star system: these famous folk would travel to our classrooms and would become, at least for that visit, our close friends. But best of all, fame and status could be conferred on anyone, even after a first film, and without any formal training. Celebrity, like exhibition, was accessible and could be immediate.
Knowledge of film history or criticism was not a requirement. In fact, some filmmakers/teachers believed that the less one knew about cinema (heaven-forbid theory), the better to claim artistry via intuition. The standards for adjudging works of art and the qualifications for making avant-garde films (and, significantly, teaching them, resulting in the recent situation in which certain filmmaker/teachers are, fifteen years later, learning about narrative cinema and watching television) were unfamiliar, up for grabs. The movement and its reception were personal and idiosyncratic more than institutional, to a degree; at the same time, institutions such as the Whitney and the National Endowment for the Arts and Film Culture were determinate; in their own way, the cooperatives, along with critics, meted out acclaim and inclusion, based on an artistic ranking; there was definitely a pecking order, although it was denied by the new radical pluralism.
In production, distribution, and exhibition, the edict “the personal is political” was taken literally; “person” was inscribed as the quintessential value. It was not so much the Whitney as John Hanhardt’s convictions and labor at the Whitney. The marks and scratches left on a print were not errors but experimental inspirations of the maker, incorporated by chance. Rough, fragmented editing did not lead to illegibility but was a sign of the humble conditions of production, of personal invention rather than a critique or revelation of the cinematic apparatus. Thus, rather than generating theoretical models other than anti-narrative, criticism was delimited to specific films (as unique) and personal testimony; to a degree, it stopped with artist recall and anecdote. As the great film would reveal the hand of the artist, so could we meet him, in person. The “personal” was both the glory and the pitfall of the movement, without a national structure of permanent exhibition (with New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Minneapolis significant exceptions), dependent on stalwart individuals. (In one of the many ways that the 1980s rewrote the 1960s, this claim, the equation of person with truth and affect, was operative within mass culture, particularly television; proliferating “talk” shows such as Oprah Winfrey’s or Phil Donahue’s produced people as political positions; to disagree was to discredit a person, with “feelings” and “real experience”; or, voters liked Ronald Reagan, the charming person and husband, while aware that he was an incompetent administrator and mediocre father.)
Momentarily, it might appear that avant-garde has spoiled to retrograde, the good old days; or, it is believed to be over; or, it has abruptly shifted in the 1980s to pursue rather than unravel, overthrow, or critique narrative in frequently opaque, awkward “features”—to a degree giving up the good fight of variable duration, alternate structures of temporality. (Or, its project has been taken up and inverted by popular culture—MTV.) In cinema, as in television, time is money; a ticket still buys a feature-length narrative, a regulated, predictable economy of time and story. By and large, artists did not heed Maya Deren’s oft-repeated dictum that contemporary artists needed to be in the forefront of knowledge, what she classically called philosophy; for her—a tireless proselytizer and pedagogue, arguing against romanticism, which she equated with surrealism, as well as being a filmmaker and writer—good art and advanced scholarship were inextricable. Many independent filmmakers resisted two decades of the liveliest radical (in its time and context) thought, including rhetoric and linguistics, Marxism and structuralism, semiotics and psychoanalysis, denigrating the new theory, including feminism.
Most filmmakers failed to notice that they had everything in common with, everything to gain from, these new unsettling and marginal discourses, which they avoided like the plague. Like avant-garde claims for access to the artistic means of production for so long dominated by studio commerce, which held to narrative’s conventions and temporality, theories of the text, subjectivity, and particularly feminism were claims for access, participation, and equality; they were strategies of resistance, operating across the artificial divide between art and mass culture. On the other hand, the debate over narrative or not ignored or derailed the avant-garde’s critique of the institutional practices of dominant cinema—the desire for an alternative economics, other conditions and venues of production, distribution, and exhibition, in tandem with a new aesthetics.
I use the term avant-garde advisedly, aware of the value of recent attempts to categorize and differentiate avant-garde from modernism—for example, Peter Burger, Peter Wollen, Andreas Huyssen, and Paul Willemen—and both of these concepts from postmodernism—for example, Huyssen, Lyotard, Hal Foster, Craig Owens, and Fredric Jameson (only Willemen and Wollen deal primarily with film). With film and video, aligned technologically and institutionally with precious art and reproducible mass culture, the assessment of borders and fault lines along a historical trajectory becomes difficult, perhaps irrelevant. The delineation and typology become even more tautological, or oxymoronic, because attributes of film (for modernism) and television (for postmodernism) exist in the above literary delineations as unargued, unstated theoretical objects or founding metaphors. It is unfathomably paradoxical that while contemporary theory is predicated on models and machines of vision, literary critics in the main still sidestep cinema and television.
The influence of early, popular U.S. cinema—for example, William Hart, Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Cecil B. De Mille—on the surrealists and Louis Delluc in France, in turn taken up by the history of French theory, is incalculable. Invoking popular film and audiences as argument, as the formulation of film’s specificity or photogenie, as a technology of modernity which had irrevocably altered space and time (along with rearranging the perception of reality), was shocking in 1915, a challenge to genteel aesthetics as pertinent as the anti-clerical, erotic assault of surrealist art. (There is a difference, however, in experiencing and analyzing popular culture taken from one national context to another, a cultural collision which displaces the everyday onto another terrain—a recontextualization, a defa- miliarization of the familiar; watching Japanese quiz shows in the United States is not an ordinary experience.) Echoes of these early intense film debates can be heard in Barthes’s euphoria over the Marx Brothers, in Godard’s innumerable quotations of Hollywood films, in Christian Metz’s “imaginary signifier,” which is predicated on an analysis of Hollywood “continuity style” with its visual conventions established as early as 1915, and in Gilles Deleuze.
Eisenstein’s study of D. W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and John Ford is common knowledge. Posters by the Stenberg brothers and Rodchenko for Buster Keaton’s films suggest that Keaton’s analysis of modernity, including advanced technologies—cinema, automobiles, trains, escalators, electricity, and domestic machines—in a Taylorist analysis of the body/machine relationship, and his critique of the domestic couple and do-it-yourselfism (with assembly-line production, or Fordism, continually taken into the home, for example, in The Electric House during a dinner party in which the food is served on a miniature train shuttling between the formally attired guests and the kitchen) were, like U.S. mass culture itself, more critical to Soviet constructivism than is usually argued. Popular or mass culture, including audiences and reproduction/conditions of mass production, has always figured centrally in film theory and avant-garde practice, albeit often not remembered.
While the U.S. eclectic period of vastly divergent styles has much in common with a romantic or Greenberg modernism, at least on the surface and in much criticism—particularly the centrality of the suffering, tormented artist, the tactic of (self)-reflexivity, the purified search for ontology, and an opposition to commercial cinema—this is not predominantly the case. Unlike modernism, video embodies the historical avant-garde’s critique of the constraints and values of institutions, in particular commercial television. In simple retrospect, the premises of surrealism (and Soviet constructivism and Italian futurism), whose practices and manifestos had migrated to various New York art galleries in the 1960s, were reinvented with a backward glance by Brakhage to Georges Melies, Sergei Eisenstein, and Ezra Pound and an eye to 1960s art movements (a decade of almost frantic labeling)—abstract expressionism (Brakhage), pop art (Kenneth Anger, Owen Land), conceptual art (Hollis Framptom and Michael Snow), op and kinetic art (Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits).
At the same time, the argument can be located within reproducible mass culture, including movies (amateur, educational, professional), still photography, advertising, and network television. Mass culture, envisioned by scholars not only as the enemy but as an ahistorical constant, is itself historical, neither, as the Edsel and the automotive industry demonstrate, infinitely reproducible nor a monolithic sameness; electronic techniques and labor practices in the 1980s were qualitatively different from late-1940s mechanical industrialism. Many films and videotapes could be aptly labeled postmodern, with attributes of bricolage, an engagement with popular culture, complex systems of allusion and referencing, and the predominance of parody—for example, Robert Nelson, Bruce Conner, Kenneth Anger, and William Wegman. Crucially, unlike the historical avant-garde, which critiqued the sacred position of the artist (a questionable claim), the value of the art object, and the institutions of “art,” avant-garde cinema centered artist and art, although the status of film as precious and valuable is only recently being realized under the pressure of television and computer-generated images. A market now exists for celluloid art, witnessed by the increasing prices of Disney-animated cells, an art market which Paul Sharits discerned early on as he mounted his film strips, exhibited them in galleries, and sold them as collages. Until recently set against commercial structures (which are now being courted, particularly German television and Channel 4 in England, but including the U.S. video cassette sales market), avant-garde film and video makers, like modernist painters, writers, dancers, and musicians, relished art and sought its modern, institutional imprimatur, mainly in New York but also in San Francisco and Chicago.
The significant difference is reproducibility; and unlike photography, film and video are intangible processes of light and sound waves more than material objects, dependent on being projected or transmitted, and then, still illusory objects. Unlike film, video can simply be erased, vanishing into what techs call “video vapor”; however, the tape, a pointillist process of iconoscopic scanning, of continuous particle movement unlike the static jerks of film’s discontinuity, can be reused, is ecologically capable of receiving and retaining new images and sounds, like audio tape.
I chose avant-garde, in the end, because of the oppositional stance to institutions, and postmodern because of the recycling, quotation, and referencing of images and sounds (including rock ‘n’ roll), and the always/already positioning of film and video within mass culture, keenly aware of the vast differences between filmmakers. For example, the work of Owen Land, influenced by Brakhage, is light years away from Brakhage, while the work of Robert Nelson shares certain affinities with not only Land but also Snow. (One might even somewhat perversely argue a comparison between the editing styles of Nelson and Brakhage.) To complicate things, Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes is vastly different from most of his work, closer to certain films of Frampton. To make avant-garde (hetero/homosexual male) politics even more contradictory, it was a movement built on the art and writing of a powerful and beautiful woman, Maya Deren (a dancer, as are Sally Potter and Yvonne Rainer), and publicly precipitated in films about homosexuality by, for example, Kenneth Anger, who wrote Hollywood Babylon in the early 1960s in France (censored for years in the United States), an exposé of sex, death, and drug scandals, gossip etching a fascination with Hollywood cinema, which has been consistently disavowed by the majority of film and video artists and a relationship sometimes arduously disclaimed by most critics, arguing from the side of art rather than mass culture. (A book could be written about the influence of Anger’s films, particularly Scorpio Rising, on segments of narrative films and rock videos; the effect of Scott Bartlett’s film techniques on megabuck spectacles might also be noteworthy.)
What united the U.S. avant-garde, experimental, underground, independent film movement was (1) the privileging of the personal (as, literally, political) seen as eccentricity, experimentation; (2) the belief that aesthetic difference was radical—the restructuring of conventions of visual pleasure (what many critics see as dis- or un-pleasure/pain), including duration and legibility; (3) the critique of temporality and expectation (and also the banality of “the everyday,” along with the centrality of desire and its lack in, for example, virtually all of Warhol’s films) in the relentless forty-five minutes of Wavelength, or the three minutes of Bruce Baillie’s All My Life, which disrupts the equation of time and money massively instituted by commercial television in the late 1940s but already in play on radio and narrative/commercial cinema, anticipating contemporary emphases on models of time and speed—for example, Felix Guattari and Paul Virilio; (4) an assault on the dominance and hold over the spectator of chronological, cause-effect logic by unraveling narrative time as well as disrupting narrative space, which is, as Heath argued, transformed by the classical text into place; and (5) the realization that the narrative had become a profitable commodity, a set of constraints.
The presentation of various and unexpected economies of time, whether abundantly plentiful (slow) or magically scarce (fast), is a serious (perhaps Eastern) challenge to the corporate, middle-class West and capitalism which equates time and money, both of which are calibrated and predicted. Avant-garde experimentation with time and its effects is an aesthetics of temporality. It critiques the way mass culture has transformed time, which has become a valuable commodity—sold by McDonald’s and network television alike. The films refuse to enact predictable, exchangeable, chronological temporalities; some are very slow compared with the hyped-up everyday of 1988 in which time along with repetition has become an issue of politics, aesthetics, and economics (what the service industries sell is our valuable time). It could be conversely argued that funds influenced length, or that the films sought what Benjamin and other German critics of mass culture called contemplation, linked to art and tradition, opposed to distraction, a mode of viewing applicable to commercial film and later television.
When I show many of these films in my classes today, I remember the excitement of the first screenings in the 1960s through the late 1970s, which was an eclectic, counter(sub)cultural, intellectual, committed party. It had a great beat and urgency; we could not predict what we would see, or how long the work would be; unfortunately, except for a few intrepid, stalwart allies, most critics, scholars, and audiences found it difficult to dance to, even then and certainly now. Perhaps my memory is nostalgic, rather like Meaghan Morris’s assessment of Lyotard’s recent writing: “Lyotard’s version of the sublime as a history of events, a tradition of happenings constituted by the invention of moves and rules, implies that actual artworks might be but the residues of such events and/or testimonials to a mission to produce new events (to keep on keeping on).”3 That avant-garde, like conceptual art, might be aptly analyzed as a series of remembered, continually reinvented events suggests, like Renato Poggioli, that it can only be historical, disconnected from objects and tied to reception. Or, what Lyotard calls its sublimity must be immediate, instantaneous.
Within this time frame, witnessing the rewriting in scholarship and popular culture alike of the 1960s, a formative period of my life, not after I am dead or even old but merely middle-aged, is, for me, an extraordinary speeding up of history, of the notion and security of cultural time, at the very least, arguing for a breakdown of any concept of stable, stylistic periodization, making style, like genre, available, any time, any place; we must think history and our place in historical temporality differently. Television promos used to announce what we could watch next week; they gradually began to anticipate the next day; now the “Today Show” informs us of what we will see in the “next half hour” or in the next minute—counting down throughout the program until the blast-off of the segment; soon some successor of Jane Pauley will tell us what we are seeing now, collapsing the future into the present; the entire program will consist of these expectations and segmentations of time, anticipating a future which is now but perpetually promised and continually delayed—ironically enough, like Wavelength, where visual space is figured with aural velocity, but exactly the opposite. Television, like an airport, involves waiting more than watching, hearing and anticipating as much as viewing. This postmodern temporality of speed and expectation (the sine wave in Wavelength going from its lowest cycle to its highest, a question of acoustic speed) and prediction/satiation-completion, however, also has the great virtue of making the past retrievable (unlike Wavelength), accessible, and correctable, enabling us to go back faster and “correct things that were wrong in the first place.” For example, a cultural, social, and political revision/revelation has occurred regarding the romanticism of drugs and alcohol, a myth deeply embedded in our scholarship and our thinking about art and creativity—a mythology of inspiration which functioned as one well-spring of avant-garde practice but a secret which was rarely argued directly in stylistic criticism of various “visions.”
That electronic reproduction has a spatiality and temporality different from mechanical forms suggests that film and video cannot be easily equated, or that they chart divergent histories of representation and reception and hence should not be held within the same general arguments, which I do. Finally I wonder whether Walter Benjamin might be right when he claims that “the greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public.”4