In “Acinema,” Jean-Francois Lyotard’s model of reception is analogous to pyrotechnics. Referring to Adorno, who fancied fireworks as the “only truly great art/’ Lyotard provides a metaphor for avant-garde films—the clarifying example of a match which “once struck is consumed. If you use the match to light the gas that heats the water for the coffee . . . it is a movement belonging to the circuit of capital. . . . But when a child strikes the match head to see what happens, just for the fun of it, he enjoys the movement. . . stated losses . . . dissipation of energy . . . intense enjoyment. . . la jouissance.”1 Comparable to Barthes and predicted on psychoanalysis, Lyotard argues that “it is essential that the entire erotic force invested in the simulacrum [be] . . . displayed and burned in vain.” Acinema will produce “vain simulacrums, blissful intensities instead of productive/consumable objects” (54). I think here of Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity or Barry Gerson’s Luminous Zone—where energy is intensely concentrated within the almost obsessive formal structure itself and perhaps dissipated during viewing.
The “pyrotechnical imperative” has two options or poles: immobility and excessive movement. These spectator positions of either paralysis or movement are inversely matched to what Lyotard calls “the tableau vivant,” a staging of immobility, and its converse, lyric abstraction, “where agitation appears” (57). Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night is an example of lyric abstraction which, comparable to abstract expressionist painting, would immobilize the spectator, a “fascinating paralysis.” Snow’s Wavelength, on the other hand, is closer to the tableau vivant and would agitate the spectator. In both realizations (not Lyotard’s examples), Lyotard’s analysis suggests that “the represented ceases to be the libidinal object while the screen itself, in all its most formal aspects, takes its place,” restricting “libidinal discharge” to very small, partial regions of the body, the eye-cortex (59).
Lyotard’s double use of “vain”—dictionarily meaning empty, worthless, hollow, having no importance, without result, fruitless—which, for him, is a positive virtue resembles Bergstrom’s negative critique regarding empty signifiers, bereft of meaning and materialism. Lyotard’s invocation of the child as pure subject, logical given that psychoanalysis is resolutely a theory of childhood, takes Penley’s negative critique of “infantile” also to positive ends. In all three instances, this “a” or not cinema is presumed to consist of effects and affects, elicited by formal work on pure signifiers without referents in the material world. At the same time, for Lyotard the “screen itself” is transformed into a libidinal object; for him, this is a good thing; for Baudrillard, screen objects are bad, simulations. This modernist presumption about the films recapitulates theory’s emphasis on separating signifiers from signifieds and becomes a virtual premise (and a sine qua non) of criticism, including Lyotard’s model of reception which appears to partake of Deleuze’s version of the simulacrum.
However, theory is rhetorical, disputatious; it is also historical, strategic. As Barthes reminded us, theory gives itself “natural airs,” an exchange of signifiers traded as signifieds: both Penley and Bergstrom critique a particular interpretation of avant-garde cinema, challenging criticism more than films, paradoxically repeating the fallacy they discover in avant-garde cinema whch they argue is without materialism, subjects without objects. To an intriguing degree, this is what Lyotard calls for in his “version of the sublime as a history of events, a tradition of happenings . . . of moves and rules” which “imply that actual artworks might be but the residues of such events.” Postmodernism thus becomes an “injunction of formal eventfulness,” the invention of new rules, unexpected moves, what Morris calls the “traditional imperative to break with tradition.”2
She goes on to argue that Lyotard’s sublime, which appropriates for postmodernism the “gestures of the historical avant-garde,” has “the enormous advantage of undermining the persistent opposition made between modernism as . . . self-reference, purism, ontological preoccupation . . . and postmodernism (avantgardism) as an insistence on problems of reference.” What the notion of the sublime dissolves, says Morris, is the proverbial opposition, “art/world,” in which “some art talks about art while other art talks about the world.” This dichotomy imagines that “loquacity is in either case intrinsic to the artwork . . . regardless of how, when, and by whom it is read.” This ahistorical presumption, along with the binarism “self-referring/other-referring,” has, to a remarkable degree, been the syllogistic premise of avant-garde film criticism, whether pro or con, even by feminists so opposed to arguments of inherent nature. Morris concludes that the opposition can only be understood as a “stake linked to conflicts in the discourse-genre of art criticism” (64).
One theoretical object for avant-garde cinema is film history. Sitney’s analogy of film with poetry recapitulates one history of film criticism which justifies cinema’s status as art by linking it with legitimate forms like music or painting, or like the history of Hollywood which aspired to the status of middle-class theater exemplified, for example, in Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players in Famous Plays, later merging with the Jesse Lasky company to form Paramount Studios. The formal experiments of avant-garde cinema recreate and allude to film history in other ways, including artists’ declaration of ancestry and lineage with, for example, Welles, Von Stroheim, Melies, Eisenstein, and Vertov.
One reading of early film history, which also reconstructs and amplifies the work of a 1905 film, deconstructing the cinematic apparatus, is portrayed in Ken Jacobs’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son. This ninety-minute film investigates its one-reel antecedent by reprinting and repetition, focusing on details of the tableau staging, transforming the short or “primitive” film into an abstract feature by elaboration and elongation, revealing the early film as the complex narrative spectacle it was. “Primitive” cinema becomes modernist cinema, the old is made new, and mass culture shifts into the realm of art.
Jacobs repositions us as modern (and historical) spectators, taking us on a visual tour from the view to the detail, from theatrical proscenium staging to film editing and camera placement, from the human figure in action to peripheral, granular incidentals, from Renaissance perspective, resolutely centered, off to the margins and up against the flatness of the two-dimensional screen and a loss of focus, from the long shot to the extreme closeup, from legibility to abstraction, from the literal to the figural, or from the figure to the ground of the movie screen, thereby renegotiating that early contact of and for story. Thus, narrative becomes the materiality of the apparatus, the basis for a disquisition on temporality. Another mystery—of the time of the spectator and story—along with the theft of the pig unfolds; time is reversed, delayed, stopped, elaborated.
While film theory predicated on classical cinema analyzed film’s spatial conventions, avant-garde films unsettled spatial configurations, addressing issues of time—its chronological, Newtonian, standardized, public times exchanged for money. In many ways, this complex modeling of time might have more to do with the unconscious—simultaneous, capricious, private times, with the past capable of erupting into the present, at the same time— or with thought and its disjunctive temporalities. Jacobs’s film reminds me of the distinction, quoted by Benjamin, between memory, which is destructive, and remembrance, which is conservative or nostalgic. Tom, Tom is destructive memory through a radical conservation. That film’s temporality was a concern of early film theory, a property of cinema which quite thoroughly inflected the thinking of modern artists and critics from the turn of the century on, running the political gamut from Eisenstein to Picasso, perhaps even determining definitions of modernism, has recently gone unremarked along with modernists’ constantly stated fascination with cinema as an electric technology which could artificially rearrange space.
The film is also a critique of representation, remakes, and sequels—along with notions of originals and aura. The mise-en-scene or staging of the 1905 film was taken from a Hogarth painting, pointed out by Sitney; the scene is of a county fair, including a wire walker. Fine art and folk art converge, traverse, mutually informed by each other, making distinctions always historical and contextual. Film’s economic basis in (1) popular or folk culture with immigrant or working-class audiences, and (2) mass, reproducible, technological culture is invoked. Film was a high-tech art of everyday culture. Jacobs restages cultural history by reminding us of the conditions of film exhibition in music halls, fairs, and circuses; the electric machine of movement, appearance and disappearance was a wondrous gimmick, like magic, a novelty act of (dis)embodiment, speeded up and and stop-framed times which magicians like Melies incorporated into their performances. These traveling sideshows of the spectacular, including the fascination of seeing the projector (the “concealed” or “repressed” or “seamless” “work” of the apparatus scrutinized by audiences then like textual analysts today), were frequently one-man operations, with the maker as the quintessential auteur, like Melies, doing everything from camera work, directing, editing, and processing to costumes, publicity, and projection. The similarities between “primitive” and avant-garde films’ conditions of production, distribution, and exhibition become apparent. However, there is a significant difference: the maker of the 1905 film remains anonymous, suggesting that the place of the author is central to distinctions between art and popular culture. (I remember Malcolm LeGrice spending a day coordinating a multiple- projection film with meager equipment and then having to perform as artist, after his arduous technical day, in front of a ragtag band of UWM film students and faculty.)
Narrative film moved, some say evolved or developed, rapidly, to a system of standardization and specialization (and collaboration). Other shifts in history occurred—from films of short duration and variable recording and projection times to standard feature length and uniform speed, determined by sound; from “silent cinema” (always with music and effects) to films with synch speech and sound; from dispersed exhibitors at county fairs, vaudeville houses, and nickelodeons to legitimate theaters and centralization; from mixtures of the live (and bawdy) and the filmed to, by the late 1950s, only the filmed, with, today, only one film, the feature, rather than a mixture of comedy, news, and animation; from an era of flamboyant entrepreneurs to multinational corporations; from a system of local and regional to national distribution and exhibition; from sale by the foot to rental and now, via video-cassettes, back to sales again; from the national to the international, interspersed with periods of isolationism, trade protectionism.
As a not insignificant aside: avant-garde cinema, like the video visionaries and liberation movements, imagined an international structure, operating across and against national political and cultural barriers, connected by stalwart individuals, travel, films, festivals, and venues of alternative exhibition. This internationalism recapitulated two eras—the twenties (and earlier), when film was argued as a universal language which would unite countries (with intertitles in various languages in release prints), and the late fifties’ opening up of the feature-length art cinema market for sound films with subtitles, accompanied by the growth of film societies, particularly around universities, which began to offer film courses. Since the recent cessation of the Cold War, along with the death of the belief in “the revolution,” the international has recently become a free zone of rapid deregulation, a vast, open market for the circulation of commercial products and services, unfettered by differences in laws of exchange. McDonald’s not Brakhage is what Moscow is waiting for.
Tom, Tom is also film history which concerns the writer’s particular viewpoint, based on lost or disintegrating paper or nitrate prints, a history often without a real except an older representation—be it painting or nursery rhyme or film—whose cultural conditions of production and reception have been forgotten and whose historical meanings as political allegories have been lost. History, here, is a modern re-vision and invention; there is no real except another image and hence no need for a camera, only an optical printer, a doubled machine which combines a camera and a projector and whose relay function in creating special effects like dissolves, fades, superimpositions or correcting errors, along with making additional prints, is usually overlooked.
The optical printer makes, shoots, or records one film from another; hence, there is no real except the film image, no outside, no tangible referent, only mechanical reproduction. (There is a certain irony in critics unknowingly repeating films’ material conditions of production as negative critiques derived from theory.) This reversed, closed circuit of projection-recording can correct (for television broadcast of cinemascope films which is really a reshooting), reproduce, or radically alter the film. In all three instances, the generation of the film alters, moving away from the “original,” which was only a negative in the first place, decaying in some vault if still available. For many filmmakers, it became a critical machine (as it was in Hollywood in the early 1930s, hence all the wipes, calendar pages falling off walls and newspaper headlines’ montage), eventually available in university film departments, often built by filmmakers. In Tom, Tom, we see as formal parameters what could be errors of printing or disasters of projection, for example, the film slipping through the projector gate, refusing to hold on its spockets, revealing the metric lines between the now twenty-four frames per second. Intermittent motion which yanks the film at regular intervals through the machine, stopping and starting, is discontinuity which only appears to be continuous. Thus, Tom, Tom also documents a series of significant, now taken for granted, mechanical inventions by anonymous tinkerers (recently being discovered, named, and credited in the new and empirical film history) which were ingeniously combined to make up the projector and the camera.
Or the film is what Comolli argues is repressed, the unseen of printing and processing, and enacts Baudry’s analysis of the projector and camera mirroring each other, combined in the optical printer. This film is literally and figuratively what their theories urge us to arduously uncover in our analyses of classical narrative films. I would argue that this film, like many avant-garde films, is theory, informed by history—of technique, of style, of story. If Metz and other writers on the cinematic apparatus had studied avant-garde cinema earlier (or, for example, Buster Keaton’s films, although Sherlock Junior would have been more than enough for an analysis of film work and dream work, or the conventions of revelation and concealment of the apparatus), the task of theory might have been simpler.
Avant-garde films critiqued the middle-class and economic determinations of commercial cinema (and our theories and their pleasures)—enacting the arguments of Noel Burch regarding the different rather than “primitive” conventions of early cinema, including their address at least for a short time to immigrant and working-class audiences. In one way, the histories of Hollywood and the avant-garde overlap: their mutual desire for respectibility, the sacrosanct imprimatur of the label Art—whether genteel good taste for Hollywood, or radical revelation for avant-garde, secured by authorship. Yet, as Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son so perfectly demonstrates, popular culture cannot be so easily separated from art; rather, the division is historical, including an economics of reception. Neither “original”—with Jacobs’s disquisitions on origins and their impossibility in film with its layers of generations, reprintings leading to a granular materiality and decay of both legibility and image quality—would pack ‘em in at the shopping mall multiplex in 1988.
Hollis Framptom’s Critical Mass stages the domestic violence implicit in language, a dissection of the heterosexual, liberated, countercultural couple, trapped in the everyday of speech and relationships in a “scene” which can never conclude but only ends, arbitrarily.3 In this implosive film, sound is really off, the amplifier/speaker split from the projection; we realize the physical differences between light waves and sound waves, the incommensurability of acoustic space and visual space. The frame often consists of black leader, but it is not an empty frame. The enigma “where were you,” the verbal narrative sought by the woman interrogator, is answered by her partner’s refusal to explain: “I can’t tell.” She tries to extract a story from him, a confession; he asserts privacy; she counters with commitment and intimacy; finally we don’t know.
We are held in the position of ecouteurs, overhearing, like listening through the walls of an apartment to domestic quarrels. The sometimes vacant frame plays on our voyeurism as well, but deflects our desire to see as well as to know. Speech is a stammer, a stutter with the body, edited and stylized into a series of gestures, for example, her pointing, accusatory fingers. The squabbling couple, locked in language, is shot against the white backdrop, another version of the screen, only here, with real people in front of it, who are projections for us. Speech consists of circularity, refusal, cliches which cannot halt, words which cannot be retracted, accusations which cannot go anywhere. As Barthes says, this speech of domestic dispute can never conclude, it can only stop. Speech is aggressive—filled with consonants, aspirants, shit, fuck. We can hear the violence Barthes ascribed to speech and domesticity; the words, the repetition, move from banality to aggression. The subjects are literally divided in and by language as an irrevocable difference and a power play which includes not speaking, not answering.
As if the image cannot hold up against the assault of the words, it flickers out, then returns, with a series of differences. The film loses sync, body and voice separate—techniques which are catastrophes or errors of projection for the classical film. Finally, the image is taken out, and we hear the entire debate, now in complete sentences. The film ends with the last word, or getting the last word as both a power play and an impossibility.
In Frampton’s Nostalgia, the dissipation of energy celebrated by Lyotard is enacted literally rather than figuratively by burning a series of photographs, destroying “the represented” as the “libidinal object” and paradoxically reinvesting it; each new photograph of a famous artist and friend repeats this process of destruction/investment. The film’s structure can be tongue-in-cheekily called dialectically materialist in that a series of conflicts, not merely formal oppositions, precipitate a third entity, a complex, overtonal montage which occurred for Eisenstein during projection: the asynchronous and difficult lag between image (a representation of a representation, a moving, still image) and voice-over (of Michael Snow but presumably of the film’s maker), a vertical montage between the represented and the story, between the body and biography, between the past and the present, between expectation and recall or memory.
And, I would argue, the process is neither in vain nor does the film enter the circuit of capital, although these are the film’s material concerns. It is also not merely work on the signifier, although it is that, literally; it is not merely the oedipal story of the artist and his work, although it is also that. It is all of these three critiques, which form its substance, taken to parody— and more. Nostalgia concerns language, its arbitrariness, the division of the subject, the rift between signifier and signified. It focuses on the sign, on the indexical, iconic, and symbolic aspects of photographic reproduction and its arbitrariness (image legibility is taken by many theorists as a value, a measure of the real as signified, or materialism). Nostalgia is a theory of cinema set against both the theory of the signifier and ontology/phenomenology, with ontology and the status of the imaginary signifier paradoxically serving as its ground.
The film’s work parallels Barthes’s 1971 call for a shift within critical theory. “The problem is not to reveal the (latent) meaning of an utterance . . . of a narrative, but to fissure the very representation of meaning, is not to change or purify the symbols but to challenge the symbolic itself.” Nostalgia enacts the move away from “the destruction of the (ideological) signified” and performs “the destruction of the sign: ‘mythoclasm’ is succeeded by a ‘semioclasm’ which is much more far reaching.”4 Although cataclysmic, Nostalgia is a man’s world, with women as incidental afterthoughts, desirable aftereffects. Making art is a man’s tale, no matter how ruptured or parodic.
An overhead camera records in closeup the gradual burning of a series of photographs placed on a hot plate (like the Socratic dialogue about cooking and art and a challenge to point of view: like writing in Poetic justice, and cooking, we look down at the screen), still images which begin to move and transform, taking on life as they are decomposing or being destroyed by the film’s pyrotechnical imperative which shifts us from pleasure to pain (of dissipation along with remembering what that hot burner felt like as a child). The photographs and the voice over by Snow as Frampton the artist recreate a personal history through memory; Nostalgia tells a story of art and friendship and fame; at the same time, it is a critique of art criticism, a parody of the arbitrariness of interpretation. Is a picture worth a thousand words? Can words undermine, clarify, redefine the photograph, granting it a context and a politics, as Susan Sontag suggested? The status of description and the veracity of interpretation are up for grabs as the voice over tells personal stories about the photos or far-fetched tales of their subsequent analysis.
In any event, pictures, or representations, with words as their ally, inevitably and randomly lead to narrative, to suspense and mystery, Nostalgia’s ending: the voice over encounters an accidental reflection which “inspired such fear and loathing that I will never photograph again. . . . Do you see what I see?” (Owen Land and, later, James Benning allude to this film and scene.) While the still images, like the past, decompose, paradoxically transformed into moving images, there is no presence track, no sound of burning. The voice over, separate, like Critical Mass, creates expectations, often colliding with art history, the great names of modern U.S. art, for example, Frank Stella, James Rosenquist, Larry Poons, and Michael Snow; history is equated with story and person but unraveled into postmodernity. The obsession of commercial film, including its clapstick method of recording and complex dubbing and editing in post-production, is maintaining sync by keeping the sound with the image—at all costs. This film splits that imaginary unity, divorces that marriage.
The precious object status of reproducible media and the material fact that film, like photography and video, rapidly decays unless properly preserved, hang in the balance. From Cocteau on, the passage of film through the projector has been seen as a death, the destruction and loss implied by endings, the inability to jump back for a second glance akin to the relentless passage of time. The projector lamp burning a hole in the film (which Land prints in Wide Angle Saxon) is a clear danger of film, particularly when film stock was nitrate and when the artist is responsible for replacing damaged and costly prints; if the image doesn’t move, it will be destroyed. (Like stop frame analyzers, video has granted us the ability to stop and reverse the image, although we cannot reverse or freeze the sound track; while video can be erased, it does not run the risk of burning.) We reassure ourselves that the prints are burning, not the negatives from which they were made. But where is the original? Whose story of art is this? The spectator is untimed by sound; the passage of the film through the projector and us is asynchronous, a collision of the present with the past on its way to a future which is uncertain.
In “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Walter Benjamin quotes Reik: “ ‘The function of remembrance . . . is the protection of impressions; memory aims at their disintegration. Remembrance is essentially conservative, memory is destructive.’ ”5 While the image track records willful destruction of memory, the sound track tries to conserve the past, arranging it in chronological order determined by person or drama, interpreting it, mastering it according to an art historical logic all leading up to a dramatic moment, a finish which serves as an explanation, a cause-effect logic. If, as Benjamin, quoting Proust, writes that “the past is ‘somewhere beyond the reach of the intellect, and unmistakably present in some material object’ ” (158), Nostalgia documents a struggle to relinquish and preserve the past, the materiality of the photographs, by the intellect, the voice-over which can neither capture nor catch up with history, a loss.
In “Repetition Time,” Stephen Heath’s “Notes around ‘Structuralist/Materialist Films’ ” hinge on the process of reception, drawing on the writings of Barthes, Lacan, and Metz: “the disunity, the disjunction . . . is exactly, the spectator. . . what the practice addresses is not a spectator as unified subject, timed by a narrative action, making the relations the film makes to be made, coming in the pleasure of the mastery of those relations . . . but. . . a spectating activity, at the limit of any fixed subjectivity . . . dispersed in process, beyond the accommodation of reality and pleasure principles.”6 This experience of disjunction is akin to Lacan’s model of being divided in language and Barthes’s famous quote about boredom: “jouissance seen from the shores of pleasure.” It is difficult to define Nostalgia’s process, its passage, its reception, after the fact. Avant-garde might be an affect, an experience of disunity, one which is literally dramatized in Frampton’s radical separation of the time of the telling from the content being burned. We watch while history is being parodically eradicated by a match and revised by being incorporated into narrative or wild criticism. However, it is not dissipated: we can watch the film again. (Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son works another way—as a radical conservation which might be too long to watch a second time.)
Like Lyotard, Heath invokes Beyond the Pleasure Principle (as does Bloom) as a theoretical explication of both the film’s formal strategy of duration and repetition and the spectator’s response, “the production of a certain freedom or randomness of energy, of no one memory,” what Heath calls, after Lacan, “the radical new” (7). Bloom’s deployment of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, with death as the literal, set against movement, the figural, is replicated by Lyotard and, to a degree, Heath. Patterns of identification are broken with “no place for the look, ceaselessly displaced . . . anti-voyeuristic” (8). Because voyeurism depends on being safe because distant, without risk of being seen, I partially agree with his assessment; at the same time, the spectatorial look is granted such power, is often so resolutely focused and addressed as to make it almost hypervoyeuristic. For example, in Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, the aggressivity of the camera’s intrusive action, swooping into crevasses of corpses, darting into skulls while skin is being folded back, almost forces us to see what we don’t want to watch. The editing of the film, like the probing camera, repeats the cutting up of the inert bodies in the autopsy room.
Heath elaborates three phases of “the spectator as subject”: “preconstruction, construction, and passage.” For avant-garde film, he argues that passage is the key: “Passage is the performance of the film, the movement of the spectator making the film, taken up as subject in its process” (9). The work of the film is “the presentation of the process of a film.” If passage is central, and if this process does not enter a chain of consumption, is dissipated rather than preserved or consumed, then avant-garde film, like Frampton’s burning of the photographs, must always be historical, caught up in the moment and its loss, over time becoming out of sync with the present—Nostalgia. (However appropriate this analysis, I would argue that preconstruction, the context of the films, their dialogic engagement with other films, media, theory, and social issues, cannot be fruitfully ignored.) Avant-garde then can only be destructive memory, can only occur in contextual moments of struggle and resistance, which the critic or theorist tries to conserve and order, transforming memory into history, remembrance—Nostalgia.
For Benjamin, however, history does not need to be dead or over: a dialectical or materialistic analysis might “blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework [which] is preserved . . . and at the same time cancelled.”7 Nostalgia is both a process of preservation and a cancellation. Benjamin’s “conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time” (263), too grand for a short film titled Nostalgia rather than History, has some relation to Adrienne Rich’s call for revision. For her, “entering an old text from a new critical direction” is, for women, “more than a chapter in cultural history.”8 Re-vision can, as Barthes also argued, “change the object itself.” Rereading avant-garde films in spite of the Great Art by Great Men hypothesis can produce new readings along with deconstructing mythical tales of Art.
Thus, while the myth of the questing male artist relentlessly circles through avant-garde criticism and certain films, as de Lauretis, I, and countless other critics have argued; and while the films do perform work on the formal attributes of the signifier, as Penley and Bergstrom state; and while avant-garde does enunciate reception as a process, the films themselves, like the theoretical presuppositions, also exist within and engage with the social and the historical. The postmodern avant-garde is art not merely of signifiers but of signifieds, meanings, signs, including the history of cinema as mass culture.
However, not only can history be homogeneous, as Benjamin argues, but criticism as well. Contemporary film theory has gone through a modernist period—with semiotics, for example, as a supertext over and above the referent and context—placing film, a “science of the signifier,” on the side of the imaginary, par excellence. We set one theory against another, relegating our cultural objects to incidental or symptomatic status—illustrative or decorative racks on which to hang our theories, which also warred with history. Not surprisingly, this dispute between theoretical signifiers is similar to one interpretation of the vacuity of avant-garde, argued as operating outside the social, meanings which were there but we spoke of other things; our eyes were on the signifier and the apparatus, and we saw manifestations everywhere.
On one hand, this explanation is historical: theory opened up the field of film studies (both marginal enterprises within universities) to particularly literary critics not trained in the discipline. Film History was not a prerequisite. Thus, theories of film could be generated by seeing only a few films cold, as it were. Avant-garde was as openly invitational—history and training were not required and might be hindrances for filmmakers. Anyone could teach cinema. After all, it’s only a movie.
In superstructural theory, we either went beneath the object with microscopic scrutiny to reveal deep structures, or we springboarded above it to find subjectivity. In neither instance were our critical objects central. The real scrimmage was over theory. In many ways, postmodern theory focuses on objects, sometimes humble artifacts taken from everyday life, popular culture. After ignoring artifacts for at least a decade, critics are now amazed how cultural objects have changed. Meanwhile, theory has wandered out of the academy and is having fun on television and in journalism. Rather than the earlier scandal of taking mass culture into art, postmodernism sends art and theory into popular culture, a devaluation for intellectuals. Or, perhaps, the focus is on art as popular culture, with the difference being history, genteel good taste, and money.
Perhaps it is not so much the theoretical object which has diversified, multiplied, crossed over borders once imagined as solid and sacrosanct but our theoretical models, no longer locked into oppositions or warring camps. Perhaps it is not so much the art world that has qualitatively altered, or even popular culture, but our theoretical presuppositions. Engel’s “law” of the transformation of quantity into qualitative change might be occurring on both fronts; his second formulation that systems contain their opposite is certainly proving itself true, as the radical 1960s became the conservative 1980s, rewriting Marxism in theory and in the world. The postmodern return to cultural objects within contextual sites, including economics and other empiricisms, rather than their received interpretations, can change the object, producing new critical models beyond the stagnation Barthes already calls in 1971 “catechistic declaration.” This rhetorical practice hit the United States around ten or more years later and safely lodged in graduate schools, where “a mythological doxa has been created: denunciation, demystification (or demythification) has itself become discourse, stock of phrases.”9
If Barthes is right, and I think he is right on, that the doxa now unmasks myth (and television, for example, David Letterman’s funny ripping of General Electric and NBC is a good example of that), routinely unhinging signifier from signified, then it is the sign itself which must be shaken. But in order to shake the sign, we must first see it or hear it. As Barthes cautions us, it is no longer so easy to separate the signifier from the signified, the ideological from the phraseological, because the distinction itself has become mythical: “any student can and does denounce the bourgeois” (166).
Barthes’s very short sketch (in my translation, only five pages), “Change the Object Itself,” to which I am referring, a revision or addendum to his influential essay on myth, is an uncannily accurate sketch of, or blueprint for, U.S. postmodernism as well as British cultural studies—an interesting cultural divide with postmodernism’s writers focusing on art and representation and cultural studies writers starting with popular culture and the audience. If this perception is accurate, the focus on either audience or representation is thus imagined as a political choice and a binary opposition. While theory migrates unmoored from context, in this instance a class- based and differentiated society, Britain, versus U.S. society in which “class” has not been determinant in the same way, we are discovering that intellectual premises and hence enunciation are determined by culture as well as history, that cultural difference indeed matters no matter how many international conferences we attend. (I realize the incongruence of sealing the difference via French theory which I did earlier with Foucault.)
Barthes posits that the future of criticism will involve what he calls idiolectology (fortunately, not an adopted term, reeking of jargon and suggestive of idiocy and a rectal exam), a term somewhat comparable to Bakhtin’s dialogic: “rather than myths, it is sociolects which must be today distinguished . . . whose operational concepts would no longer be sign, signifier, signified, and connotation but citation, reference, stereotype” (168). The latter—“citation, reference, stereotype”—reads like a checklist of recently discovered postmodern attributes. “If the alienation of society still demands the demystification of languages (and notably the language of myths) the direction this combat must take is not, is no longer, that of critical decipherment but that of evaluation” (168). Was Barthes asking for a return to aesthetics? In 1971? (I must note that feminist theory [not its catechistic derivations as jingles] has always been concerned with evaluation, along with practices of resistance.) In this seismic, 1971 shift of the terrain of theory, in fact not that surprising, Barthes includes “conversation, newspaper articles, advertising images” (169) among our theoretical objects. The problem then and today must be to ask “what are the articulations, the displacements, which make up the mythological tissue of a mass consumer society” (167). The point for Barthes was, however, to change the object itself, to produce a new object, one lodged in the premises of “the mature Marx” (169), the socialist goal of cultural studies in England. In 1989, this hardly seems possible.
I want to jump back even further in time, to 1958, and another context, and look at a film of displaced articulations, appropriately called A Movie. As I argued earlier, Bleu Shut consists partially of leftovers, recycled, re-edited, reprinted film footage taken from other contexts—one postmodern technique of archival pirating used by avant-garde filmmakers, for example, Land and Anger. A Movie, like Report (1965), by Bruce Conner, consists entirely of film leader, bootlegged, recycled footage and found sound, materials which Conner reuses in later films. He refers to his scavenged artifacts, what Barthes calls “citations, references, stereotypes,” as “lost” objects rather than the “found” objects of the surrealists. Crossroads is an elaboration of a short scene in A Movie—the Bikini Atoll, nuclear test footage; one spectacular and famous minute is expanded into an entire film through repetition and reprinting. These ordinary or shocking discarded objects, from the banal, like tails out and black leader, to the horrific scenes of recorded catastrophe, like the nuclear test footage, rather than being thrown away or incidental, become the very sustance of his assemblage.
In A Movie, Conner brilliantly edits movie chase scenes, sports racing scenes, and disaster footage, including the explosion of the Hindenburg, the collapse of a suspension bridge, and the Bikini Atoll explosion, with shots taken from National Geographic films of bare-breasted “primitives” and African animals shown in so many elementary schools in the 1950s which indoctrinated us with our cultural superiority, necessitating U.S. civilized imperialism. We could see the nakedness of black women as natural because inferior; naked white women, like the intercut shots of Marilyn Monroe, were illicit, sexual, pornographic—one difference between ethnography and pornography being racism. The footage escalates from silly bicycle races to violent and deadly collisions of race cars. Our laughter turns to silence as the film progresses, accumulating meaning and a history of imperialism over race, sex, animals.
A Movie is a history of cinema and technology as catastrophe, including the interruption of narrative pleasure within the film by intercutting titles (critiquing film’s history of ownership and art’s equation of the artist’s name with his work, here a repetitive obsession), black and white leader, and Academy leader—the numbered footage for sync resembling the nuclear countdown. The history of cinema becomes the history of Western culture or the United States—a history of colonial conquest by technology, resolutely linking sex, death, and cinema—questioning our very desire for cinema (a fetishistic, deathly pleasure within the safe, perverted distance of voyeurism, economic superiority, and national boundaries). Cinema and our perverse pleasures are technologies which accompany, document, and restage imperialism as narrative and visual spectacle in, for example, the Western and the U.S. government’s nuclear experiments, which were rehearsed, performed, and released as educational/promotional films in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These military films made for the public reassured us that radiation would not harm us if we would take minimal precautions. Film was an instrument of nuclear policy, turning the destruction of the Bikini Atoll, along with the displacement of its “natives,” into an aesthetic spectacle, eradicating the islanders just as narrative conventions erase film’s conditions of production in the name of illusion or the commodity fetish. An early shot of a submarine periscope rising, its operator catching an illicit glimpse of old footage of a nude Marilyn Monroe, followed by the expulsion of a torpedo, is funny, but sexist. By returning to the submarine later, this time followed by the nuclear explosion, the earlier reading is revised. The fetish is politicized, turned into governmental policy, which is destructive.
The date of this film, 1958, must be remarked; in many ways, it is a landmark of postmodernism, anticipating and exceeding current left debates about mass culture by thirty years. Critically, it raises issues of imperialism, colonialism, and the eradication of cultural difference. A Movie partakes of situationist strategies and politics, devastatingly demonstrating DeBord’s “society of the spectacle”—the Bikini Atoll explosion turns into beautiful art, a sublime image, eradicating the blowing up of the islander’s culture; it links models of simulation with nuclear policy and other theories of catastrophe. In fact, Conner’s films, like Warhol’s disaster art later, are arts of catastrophe: Report is about the coverage of Kennedy’s assassination, including the fact that very little was recorded, a catastrophe of vision; Crossroads walks a fine line between critique and aesthetizing the Bikini Atoll explosion. The context of A Movie is post-World War II, within the terror and disavowal of the cold war and U.S. expansionism argued as defensive containment, which included the development of vast consumer markets; consumption and shopping would assuage our fears of nuclear decimation.
The historical spectator, not so familiar with these emblems of catastrophe which are still fascinating in 1988, and living amid the denial of radiation’s effects, the Korean War, the fear of Soviet bomb attacks and the paranoia of McCarthyism and communist conspiracy, must have received this film very differently from the spectator of 1988—the end of the cold war. Conner’s use of Monroe anticipates Warhol by several years, as well as her obsessive, worshiped resuscitation in U.S. culture throughout the 1980s as a necrophiliacfetish. Anger anticipated, around the same time, the other cultural leftover from the fifties, now regularly sighted in consumer warehouses—Elvis—as did Warhol, keenly attracted to celebrities of death and drugs. Indeed, fetish objects (including Anger’s Rudolph Valentino memorabilia and the sex/death/drugs sensationalism of Hollywood Babylon), which Conner’s sculptures unsettlingly equated with the ovens of the Holocaust, linking dead, burned babies with nylons and pubic hair, politicize the sexual and link it to power (not the least example is the phallic, mushroom cloud), arguing a history of politics as perversion which is violent and destructive and quite unlike the arguments film theory gives to the various perversions ascribed to the film spectator. This is history clearly marked and critiqued as male, not safe in either the dark of the movie theater or the past tense but always present, immanent, and dangerous.
Amid the beginnings of throwaway culture and legitimate fetishes, Conner recycled old, dead, and illicit objects from mass culture and psychoanalysis, like fur, feathers, lace, and dime-store jewelry. Conner’s work is a virtual catalogue of postmodern attributes, including a dystopian prognosis of technology, with cinema as his theoretical and material object. He uses banal objects to reveal the fatality of technology. “The death symbol in Conner’s work is always the dead object, and the dead object is always present. . . . Conner’s concern would appear to be less with death itself than with the hideous forms death has taken in our times.”10 This is not an internal quest for male identity as the sexual but is work firmly within the social, the political, the historical which includes sexual and racial difference. For Conner, the effects of masculine power are catastrophic.
I want to take this 1950s fetish and culturally exaggerate it. If, as Freud argues, the fetish refers to the moment just before the frightening revelation of sexual difference, is an object invoked to ward off the fear of castration, instantiating denial or disavowal, a specifically male defense, perhaps it can also be invoked historically and collectively; Marilyn and Elvis are the twin emblems. The moment before, the time of difference, might be post-World War II, with the coincident expansion of mass culture and a foreign policy of containment secured by nuclear power, dependent on denial of its dangers and its use in the future—an argument of dissipation rather than conservation. We would develop the bomb and test it but never use it militarily—a policy of squandering which, as a recent television film suggested, Oppenheimer and the military could not stand; thus the atom bomb was dropped on Japan. Nuclear denial—a logic of inversion where offense became defense—and product differentiation and commercial proliferation (a term applied to nuclear proliferation, that U.S. fear)—sameness sold as incremental difference—replaced acknowledgment and difference as argument and logic. We were held, thus, within the beginnings of simulation as positive.
Mass culture is not so much defined in the 1980s as the commodity fetish, although it is that; rather, it is packaging, a series of differentiations, a proliferation of products as choices which, as John Berger argued in the early 1970s in Ways of Seeing (along with the polarity of sexual difference, his second argument picked up by Mulvey), conceals the fact that we have few political choices left. A seemingly innocent and funny moment occurs in the compilation film, Atomic Cafe: after footage of nuclear tests and politicians defending the bomb, a shopping center magnate urges us to forget our fears by shopping in the newly designed centers (which, as I mentioned earlier, Warhol apparently did with a vengeance, accumulating massive consumer items which were sold, after his death, in an art auction). A politics of difference—including cultural, racial, sexual, political—gives way to a packaging of differentiation, a culture of incremental sameness argued as difference and predicated on disavowal or denial.
Peter Wollen has proposed a model of postmodernism, drawing on film and popular culture in general (albeit remaining within a model of pop art), around the triumvirate of Godard, William Burroughs, and Warhol, and set in the late 1950s.11 The similar concerns among the three artists are traits or techniques of postmodernism: an emphasis on the vernacular and situationism, including forms of popular culture (rock ‘n’ roll, B-movies, journalism, news photography) and street and drug subcultures; the use of various media of reproduction, crucially, without qualms, for example, the tape recorder, Polaroid, video/TV, thereby dissolving ontologies and borders, recycling, quoting, and bootlegging from various sources; and their comparable social metaphors of prostitution and/or addiction. Although it is unfortunate that the early critical edifice of postmodernism, no matter who the constructivist or what the viewpoint (from literature and painting, for Huyssen; from film for Wollen with, however, both arguments, including a comparable Marxist emphasis, located within pop art of the early 1960s), was constructed without women, I would add to this archeology at least the work of Conner and Anger.