- 1 See specifically Rodowick 2014: p. 67-68. See also Casetti 1999, and in slightly different research (...)
- 2 I refer of course to the controversial anthology: Bordwell and Carroll 1996.
1The current paper is an intervention in what is commonly designated as the history of film theory,1 an incipient sub-discipline in film studies that places the emergence of concepts and discourses within temporal and possibly institutional contexts. It ties to this special issue of Mise au Point insofar that, nominally, it uses a quarrel within cliques as a focal point for broader conflicts within the field. I therefore attend to specific clashes in opinion and methodology between two film scholars – the redoubtable David Bordwell and the comparatively more esoteric Andrew Britton – albeit to the extent that they illuminate, but also complicate, more widely acknowledged discursive formations and transitions in the field: i.e. the move from so-called Grand Theory to post-Theory.2 It is posited, and it will be shown that one requires the theoretical insights inherited from respectively Thomas Kuhn and Stephen Toulmin, two seminal thinkers in philosophy and historiography of science, to better apprehend such defining moments in the history of the discipline.
- 3 Casetti 1997: pp. 13-17.
- 4 See especially Rodowick 2014: p. 67.
2On that note, one contention animating the current inquiry is that select efforts in the history of theory remain, ironically, under-theorized. Francesco Casetti has invoked Kuhnian paradigm-shifts to chronicle apparent disjunctions that segment and sequestrate into discrete periods the history of film studies.3 Likewise, David Rodowick’s recent study, Elegy for Theory, undertakes a century-long overview of its titular subject within the context of film, and occasionally more broadly the humanities, by invoking a genealogical approach.4 In either case, as I reveal below, the terms – paradigm, genealogy – remain so amorphously conceived that they only graze the more pressing methodological issues that this question has occasioned in philosophy of science. A consideration of crucial debates in philosophy of science will therefore prove fruitful, before we return to film studies to see how Kuhn and Toulmin can shed light on the intellectual trajectories and discords that have marked the field.
3The essay is divided into three sections. Firstly, I look at the aforementioned efforts by Francesco Casetti and David N. Rodowick to account for successive periods in the discipline and find them wanting. Consequently, I advance that one requires a more detailed theoretical model to account for how knowledge-claims circulate within a discipline if one is to attend to the history of one discipline in particular, namely film studies.
4This brings me to my second section, in which I consider the respective research projects of Thomas Kuhn and Stephen Toulmin. This partly follows the leads of both Casetti and Rodowick: the former invokes Kuhn, although in passing, to identify his methodology, while the latter claims to be authoring a genealogy, a term that overlaps significantly with both Kuhn and Toulmin (even when Rodowick references other authors). Consequently, a detailed and critical examination of both Toulmin and Kuhn reveals that their respective projects are not without flaws, and I opine instead that one must retain their terms for their heuristic value, rather than historical exactitude.
- 5 For the sake of clarity: there was never any exchange proper between Bordwell and the late Britton. (...)
- 6 This is partly occasioned by the publication in book form of the majority of his criticism: Britton (...)
5In the third section, I turn to the work of Bordwell and Britton, with supplementary insights into their respective positions in film studies. I apply aspects of both Kuhnian and Toulminean historiographies to reveal how this best characterizes their respective critical projects, and the terms of their disagreements. Of course, the history of film studies is so rife with cliques and quarrels that the immediate question becomes: why Britton vs. Bordwell,5 and not some other pair? Partly this is an issue of historical curiosity: Britton remains a less known figure, despite efforts to ignite interest in his work,6 such that offering him another day in court ought to prove inherently interesting for any history of film studies. But more importantly, the degrees of difference and commonality with respects to Bordwell and Britton are sufficiently intricate to overrule more ordinary explanations, along the lines of, “they disagree.” As such, Kuhnian periodization and Toulminean genealogy bring us some way towards securing a more secure vantage point from which to grasp the ever-elusive history of film theory.
6Finally, in conclusion, I hazard a few speculations as to how the Bordwell vs. Britton dispute might be situated within epistemic concerns derived from logic, aesthetics and no less consequently cinephilia.
7In their respective studies Theories of Cinema and Elegy for Theory, Francesco Casetti and David N. Rodowick purport to study the history of film studies against a backdrop of concepts and priorities inherited from the philosophy of science. Indeed, Casetti explicitly invokes the term “paradigm,” drawn from Thomas Kuhn. Conversely, although Rodowick’s invocation of genealogy is not to be taken as a signalling any debt to Toulmin or Kuhn, he nonetheless is concerned throughout with how the respective knowledge claims of the sciences and the humanities are produced and defined. As such, separating his usage of genealogy from how the term and synonymous concepts have surfaced in philosophy of science, specifically given its central importance to evolutionary theory, is not unwarranted.
- 7 Tellingly, Kuhn is mentioned by name only in a footnote (Casetti 1999: p. 319, n.10).
- 8 See Bird 2000; Kindi and Arabatzis 2012; Giere 1999; Hung 2006; Lakatos and Musgrave 1970. See also (...)
8To begin with Casetti: while his study is richly researched, one indisputable lacuna remains that he scarcely mentions Kuhn beyond the opening pages. He briefly characterizes paradigms,7 in the plural, as “different models (shared by the scholarly community) according to which research was planned, conducted, and explained” (1999: 13). What is missing is any sense that Kuhnian historiography has spurned numerous criticisms and charitable reappraisals over the decades.8 Consequently, unpacking its terminology and occasionally contradictory theses raises thornier questions still on how original ideas emerge in any field, and/or what is the relationship within any discipline between novelty and tradition – recurring topics in the philosophy of science, to say nothing of the humanities.
- 9 I mean of course his widely appraised essay. Metz 1971: pp. 39-93.
9For example, Casetti refers to disciplines as extra- or non-cinematic areas of study which adopt film as their object of enquiry – i.e. semiotics, psychoanalysis etc. On Metz’s famous query as to whether cinema is langue or langage,9 Casetti qualifies: “the question has meaning only within semiology […]. Thus, the question concerns more the discipline we start from than the phenomenon we are dealing with.” (1999: 90). To this, he then adds that with Metz’s signal essay: “A new research paradigm is born[.]” (91). Unfortunately, for someone like Stephen Toulmin, as we shall see, the very notion of new research paradigms is incompatible with how disciplines function throughout history, as disciplines are defined by their epistemic continuity, and not periodic intellectual breaches. The more pressing issue becomes, how one might identify Metz, or any comparably historic or divisive figure, within the history of film studies – and, by implication, how might the successive epistemic, historic and discursive stages of film studies be placed on a continuum (e.g., Metz and the phenomenological tradition in film studies; Metz and filmology; Metz and Jean Mitry – to list but a few examples revolving around the author of Essais sur la signification au cinéma), or conversely at loggerheads with one other? This is a question Casetti does not adequately examine.
- 10 See 2014: pp. 5-6, and also 2014: pp. 67-72, among other passages in the book.
10Similar ambiguities arise in David Rodowick’s recent study, Elegy for Theory. The breadth of references is again informative, and he does provide a methodological rationale, whereby his history of theory is in fact a genealogy.10 Genealogy for Rodowick is an approximation of Nietzsche-Foucault, whereby the emergence of select terms and concepts serve determinate political and institutional ends.
- 11 Rodowick 2014: pp. 68-72.
11However, upon inspection, Rodowick’s usage of genealogy is at once diluted and constrained. Throughout, he makes but casual mention to the causality of institutions and interests that in accordance with which discourses purportedly originate – defining concerns to both Nietzsche and Foucault. He therefore maintains that theory as such – by which one might say a conceptually novel and disinterested explication of some designated entity – is only applicable to the study of film in the (canonical) contemporary era. By contrast, classical film theory, was underwritten by separate and perhaps incommensurable questions – was a separate “paradigm,” one might advance – and therefore only arraigned under the more modern or contemporary notion of theory retroactively.11 Yet because Rodowick has emptied Nietzschean-Foucauldian genealogy of much of its polemical impetus and force, he is left with precious little to say as to how (by what means) or why (on what ground) discourses and disciplines can be periodically repurposed or redefined, other than a mention that, under logical positivism, the goal of theory “was to make philosophy disappear into science.” (6). Consequently, changes in the discipline seem to surface haphazardly, and/or merely by fiat.
12Instead, one would do well to consider Kuhn’s notion of respectively normal and revolutionary sciences in relation to crisis: that one passes from the normal to the revolutionary following the impasse of a crisis. Likewise, Toulmin’s conception of genealogy mandates that one discern a background continuity against which such crises unfold. Either way, an excursion into philosophy of science here proves necessary.
- 12 This view permeates the entire book, but see especially SSR pp. 10-110.
13Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (henceforth SSR) portrays the history of scientific thought as fluctuating between: stretches of stability, understood as normal science; historic non sequiturs, known as paradigm-shifts; and revolutionary science; followed by further periods of routine enquiry. The paradigm-shifts are brought about by observed anomalies between theory and data: what is known as a crisis. But the move from crisis to revolution does not signify that falsehoods are cast aside and substituted by the truth: paradigms always mediate a scientist’s engagement with the world, such that a paradigm-shift requires a new theoretical arsenal on the basis of which the scientist pursues work. Conversely, normal science, even as it is invariably abandoned by revolutionary science – which then becomes the “new” norm – is not to be discounted. The work of normal science is devoted to puzzle-solving: the piecemeal alignment of research and theory. Knowledge is cumulative and aims at better understanding the world; this understanding is jettisoned when new knowledge undermines or overwhelms what had been taken for granted.12
- 13 For example: “Lavoisier […] saw oxygen where Priestley had seen dephlogisticated air” (SSR 118), on (...)
14Nonetheless, the current section critiques Kuhn, while salvaging some of his nomenclature for its heuristic value. Because terms such as “paradigm,” “normal science,” “crisis” and “revolution” explicitly raise the question of the relationship of a discourse to its objects and its practitioners’ attendant beliefs, Kuhn can elucidate how scientific practice — such as the one that concerns us here: film studies — periodically re-orients its purposes, albeit such that the polemical opponents find themselves speaking at cross-purposes.13. No less significantly, at least one of Kuhn’s critics has tackled the problems raised by “paradigms” and “revolutions” without appeal to incommensurability.
- 14 See his analysis of Goethe’s attack on Newton’s theory of optics (1972: pp. 124-125).
15Stephen Toulmin has maintained that cases of genuine incommensurability are rare, and then only when researchers are operating within already incommensurable disciplines — and not within a fairly unified or compact discipline.14 By contrast, in considering the examples of historic change adduced by Kuhn, Toulmin shows how “the so-called ‘Copernican Revolution’ took a century and a half to complete, and was argued out every step of the way.” (1972: 105). This is because:
In a highly organized science like physics, every proposed modification – however profoundly it threatens to change the conceptual structure of the subject – is discussed, argued over, reasoned about, and criticized at great length, before being accredited and incorporated into the established body of the discipline. (103).
16Toulmin defines a discipline as an intellectual practice in which successive generations of practitioners partake in “a continuing genealogy of problems.” (148). His conception of scientific history is evolutionary:
[T]he ideas which [Niels] Bohr advanced, to deal with his own problems about atomic structure, are best related to the points left over by his teacher, [Ernest] Rutherford; while the difficulties which he himself left unresolved posed, in turn, problems around which successive generations of scientists focus their work forma kind of dialectical sequence[.] (148).
17This need not fly in the face of Kuhn’s “normal science.” Moreover, SSR concludes with an appeal to Darwinian evolutionary theory, although, pace Toulmin, there is no rationale as to how science evolves: it is without telos.15
18Yet Toulmin’s own view is not that science follows any preordained narrative. Among his chief opponents is the modern study of logic, which mandates that principles of rationality be translated into the language of mathematics. On the opening pages of his preface, Toulmin announces:
an exclusive preoccupation with logical systematicity has been destructive of both historical understanding and rational criticism. Men demonstrate their rationality, not by ordering their concepts and beliefs in tidy formal structures, but by their preparedness to respond to novel situations with open minds. (vii-viii).
19Toulmin invokes jurisprudence: “legal reasoning quite properly proceeds in a routine manner, by reapplying established rules and precedents. At a deeper level, however, its character radically changes. When it encounters the limits of the accepted rules, judicial reasoning acquires a new and more ‘functional’ character.” (94). The questions raised by this functionality include: “how far, in a changing social and historical situation, one or another extension of current procedures will best serve the proper purposes of the law?” (95). These “proper purposes” reveal themselves through the detailed study of jurisprudence in its consistency over a diversified network of applications.
20This cuts to the marrow of Toulmin’s thesis, which must be quoted at length:
Rationality, we shall argue, has its own ‘courts’ in which all clear-headed men with suitable experience are qualified to act as judges or jurors. Within different cultures and epochs, reasoning may operate according to different methods and principles, so that different milieus represent (so to say) the parallel ‘jurisdictions’ of rationality. But they do so out of a shared concern with common ‘rational enterprises’, just as parallel legal jurisdictions do with their common judicial enterprises. So, if we look and see how, within the rational enterprises which are the loci of conceptual criticism and change, new concepts are introduced, develop historically and prove their worth, we may hope to identify the deeper considerations from which such conceptual changes derive their ‘rationality’. (95).
21To sum up: the ever-changing protocols of reasoning nonetheless rest on a bed-rock of priorities and interests, which lend continuity across the apparent shifts of paradigmatic revolutions.
- 16 Alongside his critique of logic, Toulmin attacks R. G. Collingwood’s metaphysics, whose argumentati (...)
- 17 To cite an example by way of film: Those who believe in a deity who escapes all reasoning and under (...)
22Ironically, criticisms Toulmin puts to Kuhn16 are echoed in some of Kuhn’s own tergiversations. Thus, he would later avow: “Underlying all these processes of differentiation and change, there must, of course, be something permanent, fixed and stable. But, like Kant’s Ding an sich, it is ineffable, undescribable, undiscussible.” (2000: 104). On this basis, Kuhn concludes: “Some ways are better suited to some purposes, some to others. But none is to be accepted as true or rejected as false; none gives privileged access to a real, as against an invented, world. The ways of being-in-the-world which a lexicon provides are not candidates for true/false.” (ibid.). But this would surely run afoul of any Ding an sich, which however impervious to language or description can just easily be the object of an inaccurate (read: false) lexicon.17
23Yet an additional irony is that when Toulmin examines intellectual history, his language grows suspiciously close to Kuhn, revealing just how resilient the latter’s historiography has proven. Thus, Toulmin declares:
the task of evaluating conceptual changes in science requires us to consider implications of half a dozen kinds; and this calls for the exercise of judgement, in two separate respects. Not only are the relevant considerations frequently incommensurable – not only may we lack any simple index for comparing the respective ‘values’ of (e.g.) accuracy, scope, and degree of integration – but, in addition, the decisions frequently involve striking a balance between a profit of one kind and a loss of another. The recognized disciplinary criteria of choice are always multiple, and sometimes point in opposite directions[.] (1972: 227).
- 18 On his Darwinian approach to conceptual change, see especially 1972: pp. 200-202. On intellectual s (...)
24This indicates a degree of discontinuity and contingency in how science transforms which is only exacerbated by Toulmin’s Darwinian framework: concepts arise by “intellectual selection,” and require a variety of auspicious circumstances to flourish. Moreover, these concepts must correlate to soluble problems: i.e. problems that, at a given moment in history, invite hypothetical solutions.18 We are well within the orbit of Kuhn, with soluble problems substituting for puzzle solving, and intellectual selection trumping paradigm shift. Terms like “revolution” and “normal science” retain considerable heuristic value, and convey something of how we think of intellectual history which may be intractable. To turn Toulmin’s Darwinian paradigm back at him, they appear to have survived the competition because they help pinpoint periods of relative stability and/or moments of change within the history of a field – even if they are better used ostensibly than definitively.
- 19 In addition to the subtitle of Post-Theory – “reconstructing film studies” – consider Carroll in My (...)
- 20 Britton 2009: pp. 277-301 and pp. 334-338. He also briefly addresses symptomatic reading in a later (...)
- 21 A brief essay on narratology by Bordwell published the same year also anticipates his later, extens (...)
- 22 Britton 2009: pp. 384-424.
- 23 Britton 2009: p. 413.
- 24 See for example Bordwell 1996: pp. 27-30.
25It is against this background that I now turn to Andrew Britton’s attack on David Bordwell’s contribution to The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (hereafter CHC). Britton’s essay is by no means the only polemic incited by Bordwell’s admittedly tendentious scholarship; yet for the current purposes, it remains the most compelling. For ironically it would take some contrivance to cast Britton as an exemplar of the capital “T” theorists whom Bordwell, Carroll and others assail in Post-Theory and other clarion calls to rebuild film studies.19 Quite the contrary, despite occasional, exceptional and early deferrals to Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser,20 Britton was critiquing the Structuralist and post-Structuralist leanings of Screen as early as 1979,21 in a detailed essay: “The Ideology of Screen.”22 This article no less mercilessly argued against the journal’s theoretical precursors, namely Althusser, Lacan and Roland Barthes. No less ironically, Bordwell and Kristin Thompson are singled out by Britton as labouring under the influence of Barthesian formalism,23 while in the later critique of CHC, Bordwell’s opening chapters are identified as “from first word to last, pure unmitigated Theory.” (2009: 427). Lest the reader think the use of capital “T” is incidental, consider Britton’s charge that the mandate of CHC is tantamount to what Bordwell-Carroll later impugn as Grand Theory:24
- 25 To this one might add that already in 1986, Britton had devised his own version of what Bordwell su (...)
This [the book’s avowed thesis] is a very large offer indeed, and it is no doubt the book’s daunting art of appearing to account for everything which has inhibited the widespread argument and controversy one would naturally expect to follow from the publication of a work advancing claims of this kind. I say ‘naturally’ because the claims seem to me to be, for all their plausibility, obviously false, and if the authors fail so largely to substantiate them, that is because nothing of the kind could be substantiated: the project, as defined, is unrealizable. (426).25
- 26 Britton 2009: pp. 473-485.
26No less significantly, when Bordwell contends, pace Fredric Jameson, “[d]espite such claims that the phenomenon [post-Modernism] is radically novel, theories of postmodernity restate themes already articulated by the Frankfurt School and its disciples” (1997: 146), he is restating the principal argument in Britton’s 1988 article against post-modernism, and Fredric Jameson.26 One might be forgiven for hoping that in a better world, Bordwell and Britton might have been bosom buddies. How to account for their estrangement from one another?
- 27 Britton 2009: pp. 26-27.
- 28 For Britton’s critique of Wollen, see 2009: pp. 358-361.
- 29 On the different types of poetics – historical, analytical and theoretical – see Bordwell 2008: pp. (...)
- 30 Trotsky 2005: pp. 138-153.
- 31 See also Lemon and Reis 1965: pp. 99-100.
- 32 For brevity’s sake, I have elided the details of Bordwell’s account in the body of my text. However (...)
27The obvious answer, that Britton is a Marxist, while Bordwell is a formalist, is incorrect. Britton was an unorthodox Marxist, who championed Hollywood classicism, the so-called bourgeois novel, and never felt at home in the post-soixante-huitard climate of 1970s film criticism. Provocatively, he upheld post-war Hollywood cinema as a more accomplished instance of the social art advocated by Bertolt Brecht than the playwright’s own theatre,27 to say nothing of the counter-cinema favoured by Peter Wollen.28 In turn, Bordwell’s formalism is historical poetics,29 which accounts for Leon Trotsky’s critique of the Opojaz30 by examining questions of style and form as being historically, empirically and institutionally rooted.31 Here is Bordwell on the historical dimension of Hollywood’s poetics: “The classical style can be linked to its conditions of production much more precisely than is generally acknowledged. Every cut testifies to narration, but every cut also implies some sort of work.” (CHC 84). To this, he pursues an itemization of examples – from “camera set-ups” to “[s]oft-focus backgrounds” lighting, to the signature styles of auteurs and finally montage sequences – such that “[t]he division of [a] film into shots and scenes bears the traces of divisions within the labor process.” (ibid.) Reciprocally: “the classical norms became important uses of and guidelines for the organization of production.” (ibid.)32
28Conversely, Britton’s multiple repudiations of the CHC’s deferrals to Marxism are worth quoting at some length:
[The book’s] limitations are summed up in the phrase ‘mode of production’ in the […] title. Staiger’s descriptions of successive forms of management in the Hollywood film industry are useful and important, but they suffer (as Holly-wood histories generally do) from the author’s assumption that it is possible to extrapolate the object ‘Hollywood’ from the social history of twentieth-century American capitalism as a whole. Staiger takes over the concept of mode of pro- duction from Marx, but she does not take over Marx’s analytical method, and she treats ‘the Hollywood mode of production’ and its development as if this mode were a thing in itself which can be studied independently of the culture within which the development took place. (2009: 427).
29When the CHC strives to connect the “thing in itself” to “the culture,” Britton is no less unsparing. Bordwell writes: “It is easy to see in the goal-oriented protagonist [of Hollywood cinema] a reflection of an ideology of American individualism and enterprise, but it is the peculiar accomplishment of the classical cinema to translate this ideology into a rigorous chain of cause and effect.” (CHC 16). To this, Britton responds: “a ‘goal-oriented protagonist’ and the sequential dramatization of such a protagonist’s pursuit of these goals do not in themselves ‘reflect,’ let alone […] affirm any ideology whatsoever.” (436). Britton here lists several key titles – among them, Scarface (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Now, Voyager (1942) – that “can and clearly should be referred to the existence of an ‘an ideology of American individualism and enterprise,’ but […] the narratives centered on them do not demonstrate its efficacy by virtue of their adherence to the formal rules of linear causality.” (ibid.) This is so because in such films the “protagonist’s goals can only be deduced from the narrative itself[.]” (ibid.). Consequently, a work such as the aforementioned Capra title “is not a mirror, but a complex formal structure which is dedicated to the analysis of the ideology.” (ibid.).
- 33 I leave aside entirely the legitimacy of Britton’s critique. Despite my charitable reading of his w (...)
- 34 See Bordwell 2004.
- 35 Thompson 1988: pp. 11-12.
30In short, Britton’s contention33 is that if Bordwell defers to Marxism, it is not so much as a historical materialist, but as a historical reductionist. Bordwell’s formalism is ideologically pernicious. He uses poetics as a subterfuge: under the guise of attending only to style and narrative structure, Bordwell smuggles in a hermeneutics whereby the content of Hollywood cinema is defined by its mode of production. Britton presents a variation of Bordwell’s own argument for formalism, and against Structuralism: that an art-work’s techniques must be weighed within the context of the art-work itself,34 and Britton would add against the background of a historical and cultural moment. This mandates, as Kristin Thompson has elsewhere noted, that form and content are dynamically and mutually embedded in how they orient perception and elicit interpretation from the spectator.35 The classical paradigm, if it exists for Britton, is as potentially open as the professed ambiguity of art-cinema.
31However, there is a deeper schism separating Bordwell from Britton, which can be best appraised by way of Toulmin and Kuhn and concerns CHC’s privileging of “typical” or even average works (CHC 10). Indeed, when encountering Bordwell’s interest in “the typical work[,]” it is difficult not to invoke Toulmin’s description of how a disciplinary study of the arts might look like. It would confine itself to the medium or practice’s techniques, highlighting “a quasi-disciplinary continuity and coherence in its historical development.” (1972: 397). In other words:
Draftsmanship and drypoint engraving […], camera-work and film-editing, are ‘arts’ in the original sense of the term: repertories of practical skills embodied in the persons of the artists concerned and transmitted by the apprenticeship with-in a particular ‘school.’ […] Such a history of artistic techniques would, of course, differ strikingly from the more familiar historical procession of Great Poets, Masters of Sculpture or Giants of Music. It would have, for instance, to give proportionally more space than usual to composers who appear in retrospect to be of second-rank ability, discussing Mozart (say) in relation to Stamitz, Richter, and Hoffmeister […]. (397-98).
32Delimiting one’s focus to artistic technique, severed from evaluative considerations, is a defensible summary of Bordwell’s approach in the CHC, as does the nod to apprenticeship within a school: the acquisition of filmmaking skills counts as apprenticeship within the studio system.
- 36 Indeed, Bordwell wrote his sections of the CHC, to say nothing of the rest of his scholarship, with (...)
- 37 The last contention is readily open to dispute, and not necessarily advocated by the current author (...)
33 In other words, Toulmin helps us assess the implications of CHC’s purported object of study: the typical film as composed of a compendium of inherited techniques. Although left tacit in Bordwell,36 one infers the following: limiting oneself to the typical film becomes a prerequisite for film studies to become a discipline, in a Toulminean sense, and perhaps more intellectually disciplined in the process. This is so because it compels the scholar to attend exclusively to relatively disinterested observations as to how techniques are deployed within a specified structure or context (i.e. making a movie), regardless of how one might judge the value of such techniques, or even whether technique need be a priority in aesthetic evaluation (as opposed to, for example, the artist’s “vision,” broadly understood). Antithetically, Britton’s knowledge-claims – as with that of most, if not all, evaluative criticism – will seem to be less reliably grounded. Certainly, one might produce ideologically savvy readings of select cultural artifacts, but on what basis is my ideology any less valid than yours (e.g. how to evaluate Godard’s Dziga Vertov period against the rest of his oeuvre, a question that inescapably confronts one to the relationship of film to ideology)? Selecting one set of ethical or aesthetic maxims over another becomes an extra-logical decree: a conjecture taken largely on faith. This reminds us that by its very etymology, aesthetics – or aísthēsis – signifies the contingent, the ephemeral and the subjective, casting doubt on whether a discipline (i.e. philosophy of aesthetics) might even be premised on what amounts to perceptual experience.37
- 38 The moniker of course comes from Robert B. Ray. See Ray 2001: pp. 29-63.
- 39 See Bordwell 2006.
34However, not only Toulmin, but also Kuhn sheds some light on the so-called “Bordwell regime.”38 If Bordwell’s and Carroll’s frequent calls to restructuring film studies rings of “paradigm shifts,” then their inclination to middle-level research is not unlike Kuhn’s puzzle-solving. In normal science, attention is devoted not to theoretical discoveries or conceptual novelties, but rather to the alignment of a proposition or question with data or a research finding. Writes Kuhn: “To scientists, at least, the results gained in normal research are significant because they add to the scope and precision with which the paradigm can be applied.” (SSR 36). For example: how best to characterize the narrative construction of classical-era filmmaking?; and, thereafter, how do the resulting insights extend similarly or differently to Hollywood cinema in the years after the demise of the classical studio system?39
- 40 Britton 2009: pp. 435-436.
- 41 Britton 2009: pp. 223-224.
35At the same time, such research can have the eloquent circularity of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Britton notes, Bordwell goes looking for goal-oriented narratives, and he finds them: a tidy portrait of Hollywood cinema emerges from a neatly defined puzzle.40 The larger consideration as to how such goals are differently defined, and how this might differentiate one’s interpretation, remains overlooked, if not neglected. Take how, in It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s Clarence the Angel’s respective goals are inflected and even shaped by the film’s intertextual design and American social history. To paraphrase Britton's argument: the depiction of “Pottersville,” i.e. what George's hometown would have been like had he never been born, evokes a dialectic between the film's view of idyllic small-town life and a dystopian urbanity inherited from film noir.41This alone might not challenge Bordwell's analysis, until one realizes it houses a more fundamental question, namely: is “goal-oriented narration” a productive category if it erases signal differences between distinguishable works? There is, for Britton, an inopportune fit between classical narration as defined by Bordwell and the more precisely identified social content he discerns in Hollywood cinema. From a Kuhnian perspective, this disjunction between discourse (“classical narration” in the CHC) and object (Hollywood cinema) signifies a crisis that mandates a new paradigm.
36Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that the above disjunction signifies more than mere “language games,” or varied research ends. Bordwell is quite clear that goal oriented narration, whereby events are defined with regards to “[c]haracter-centered – i.e., personal or psychological – causality” (CHC 13), is key. By the latter he means that characters are necessarily individuated psychologically, ascribed defining traits, and thereafter participate, throughout the story, in a causal chain whose end result is their achievement of a tangible goal. Bordwell moreover contrasts this to instances whereby “[c]ausality could also be conceived as social – a causality of institutions and group processes. Soviet films of the 1920s remain the central model of cinematic attempts to represent just such supraindividual historical causality.” (idem.) Sociohistorically defined causality, for Bordwell, becomes incommensurable to Hollywood narration.
- 42 One might rebut that Britton’s argument proves too much: to wit, what narrative in any art-form isn (...)
37Britton’s response is to invoke a term, “the secularization of allegory” (2009: 440), whereby the characters’ goals are to be understood synecdochally, as symbolic meditations on more broadly defined social conflicts. The apparent personal or psychological dimensions of the character are ostensible: they are one-dimension beings whose pursuits and desires can only be appraised with regards to, to redirect Bordwell’s language, “a causality of institutions and group processes.” (CHC 13). The difference from Soviet montage cinema, of course, is that such causality is represented symbolically: Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo (1958) is not a function of his psychological dispositions, although it would seem to be if one sticks to the literal meaning of the text. Rather, for Britton, his actions and pursuits are in effect an index of his society’s attendant norms and practices, and have no significance (personal, psychological, or otherwise) independently of these norms and practices.42
- 43 See bibliography for reference.
- 44 Bordwell 1985: pp. 110-113. Technically, at this stage Bordwell identifies his theoretical affiliat (...)
38 Yet, to return to Kuhn and Toulmin, all is not so simple. Consider again that normal science is said to emerge from a revolution – it is akin to a counter-culture gone mainstream, but also a counter-culture that discards the difficulties and aporia of the “old” mainstream. So if, in theorizing the mental processes of the spectator in the face of continuity editing, Jean-Pierre Oudart’s explanation of suture43 is found to be wanting, then the methodologies advanced in CHC and Bordwell’s other work aim to be a preferred alternative. The question from the standpoint of either Kuhn or Toulmin would be how to characterize such transformations in the history of the field. From a Kuhnian perspective, Bordwell presumes to have found certain anomalies in Oudart, and hence cognitivism supplants psychoanalysis as the new paradigm.44 Yet Kuhn’s periodization also implies that rather than resolve any of the anomalies raised from a prior paradigm, the new paradigm simply substitutes a new research agenda. No problem is solved; it is rather that entirely new questions are asked.
- 45 Bordwell 1983.
- 46 Bordwell 1985: p. 112. On the preconscious and the other relevant categories (e.g. conscious, uncon (...)
39Such a characterization accords well with Bordwell’s “lowering of the stakes,”45 or his stated antinomies between Grand Theory and middle-level research. Yet it misrepresents the details of his arguments against Oudart, which involves arguing that suture is incoherent on psychoanalytic terms: that Oudart conflates the unconscious with the preconscious, crucially distinct entities in Freud’s neurological theory.46 Bordwell’s shift to cognitivism therefore does not preclude that one might still develop a psychoanalytic theory of film spectatorship; it simply dismisses Oudart’s efforts, insofar that the alignment between his psychoanalytic paradigm and the puzzles he professes to solve are not a consistent match. From a Toulminean perspective, it is helpful to emphasise here that, the change in methodology notwithstanding, there is genealogical continuity from Oudart to Bordwell, as the latter is supplying rationally preferred answers to the problems raised, yet inadequately addressed by Oudart: i.e. what is the significance of continuity editing with regards to the spectator’s mental processes?. Meaning: from psychoanalysis to cognitivism, there is a genealogy of problems. Yet throughout this genealogy arises a fundamental change in the discipline insofar that, again from psychoanalysis to cognitivism, the viewer’s mental activity is incommensurately different. One cannot point to a continuity in theorizing, nor a paradigmatic shift, and leave it at that. Rather, the two seemingly incompatible concepts operate hand-in-hand, and are not to be taken as absolute, but as shifting in emphasis and by increment, on the basis of our own interpretation or reading of the history of film theory.
- 47 Or: would have been taken as one, if more people had read Britton. But I have elected to focus on a (...)
40Finally, an issue worth addressing here is what do disciplinary crises, insofar that Bordwell vs. Britton can be taken as one,47 teach us about film studies, and, more importantly, can a crisis be resolved? One insight to glean is that certain perspectives are ultimately irreconcilable, however much one might trace a continuity of theoretical concerns across a breach. There probably is no way to decide, between either Bordwell or Britton, who is in the wrong: one can read George Bailey as uniquely individuated, or as exemplifying a particular ethos and era. Opting for one or the other would revolve around what aspects of his characterization are worth emphasising: does his deaf ear, for example, set him apart from the other characters?; or is it incidental, meaning as a character trait it is ultimately superseded by his identity as an American father and small-town entrepreneur? On this point, Bordwell and Britton might have very well wound up talking past each other.
41The above would also seem to answer the second question – i.e. can crises be resolved? That it cannot be, in strictly logical terms, should not be seen as inhibiting film studies. It may be that such epistemological aporia is the price one pays for dealing with polysemic artifacts – i.e., films. This brings us to a topic which I now consider in the conclusion: what link, if any, might be discerned between the putative logic that guides film studies, and the kind of aesthetic investment one associates with film-going?
- 48 Bordwell 1996: pp. 23-24.
- 49 “Before there are auteurs, there are constraints; before there are deviations, there are norms.” (C (...)
- 50 Britton 2009: p. 425-426.
- 51 Britton 2009: p. 439-441. See also Britton 1984: p. 102.
43 The most surprising attack Britton launches against Bordwell is that the latter detests Hollywood classicism – that the CHC is an Adorno-style lambasting of the Culture Industry. Nobody who reads Bordwell’s later predication of Jerry Maguire (1996) as “a masterpiece” (2006: 63) can possibly mistake his work as kindred in spirit to The Dialectic of Enlightenment. There was plausible substance to some of Britton's criticisms, but what I want to press for are the stakes of the debate. Britton is a cinephile who wishes to defend his love of Hollywood classicism against what he perceives as the sterile appropriation of disinterested scholarship – which, as he insists, is not the least bit disinterested. However, Bordwell’s subsequent denunciations of top-down enquiry and symptomatic reading are no different. Among the most robust passages in his inaugural essay for Post-Theory involves a defense of Double Indemnity (1944) against a Foucauldian critique.48 The argument is inseparable from the appeal that a Hollywood text, or perhaps any film, cannot be reduced to the sum of a given theorist’s paradigm. Neither Bordwell nor Britton call for a Sontagian “erotics of art” (Sontag 2013: 20), but neither are they at ease with the mere annexing of art-objects within certain disciplinary fields. Even Bordwell’s dissection of the typical film serves to better highlight what he terms deviations from the norm and alternative modes of filmmaking.49 Britton’s hermeneutic maxim – art-objects need be contextualized within an arena of competing social discourses and political struggle50 – resolves to show that the dramatic content of Hollywood cinema and American fiction remains, in some sense, uniquely American, i.e. distinct from the European novel.51
44This cuts past aesthetics, understood as art-appreciation, all the way to aesthesis, i.e. that realm of feeling that cannot be subsumed under rationality and logic. However, if we accept C. S. Peirce’s suggestion that logic is animated by aesthetics, broadly defined,52 the challenge is: how to choose one version of aesthetics over another? The answer may have to do with how canonical traditions are to be weighed against more generalized conventions, and whether scholarship itself should be more selective, or encompassing. The problem cannot be settled within the confines of film studies alone. But within film studies, the contention remains: scholarship, whether disinterested or engagé, cannot collapse into mere professions of movie-love; but that not-withstanding, in the final analysis movie-love will always have to matter a little bit more.